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Part II - Methodologies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2023

Ato Quayson
Stanford University, California
Ankhi Mukherjee
University of Oxford


Decolonizing the English literary curriculum is a necessary and yet impossible task. It requires more than overcoming institutional inertia within the university; it requires much more than having a series of difficult conversations at the departmental level regarding the purpose and scope of an English literary education today. Decolonizing the literary curriculum in the United States, the location from which I write, demands nothing short of revolutionizing an entire educational apparatus where the university is only the tip of the iceberg. Add to it Kindergarten–12 schools, the textbook industry, and state legislatures, eight of which as of 2021 have banned the discussion of structural racism, sexism, and White privilege in the classroom (Ray and Gibbons).

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023
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Chapter 7 Theories of Anthologizing and Decolonization

Aarthi Vadde

Decolonizing the English literary curriculum is a necessary and yet impossible task. It requires more than overcoming institutional inertia within the university; it requires much more than having a series of difficult Reference Brathwaiteconversations at the departmental level regarding the purpose and scope of an English literary education today. Decolonizing the literary curriculum in the United States, the location from which I write, demands nothing short of revolutionizing an entire educational apparatus where the university is only the tip of the iceberg. Add to it Kindergarten–12 schools, the textbook industry, and state legislatures, eight of which as of 2021 have banned the discussion of structural racism, sexism, and White privilege in the classroom (Reference Ray and GibbonsRay and Gibbons).

I begin with the enormity of the challenge not to be defeatist, but to acknowledge that colonialism suffuses the infrastructure of humanities education. Its tentacular reach is what makes decolonization an unfinishable project (Reference VaddeVadde 21). Parting ways with Jurgen Habermas’s characterization of modernity as an unfinished project, proponents of decolonization have learned to question the philosophical optimism implied by a telos of accomplishment. To think in terms of the unfinishable rather than the unfinished is to take into account the persistence of neocolonial institutions and debt structures as well as the continuation of settler colonialism across continents despite the official demise of territorial empires. Within this framework, decolonizing the curriculum functions less as an apogee and more as an ongoing check on the institutional power of educators and educational administrators.

In the field of English literary studies, a primary vector of such institutional power is the canon. Theoretically, the canon and the curriculum should reinforce one another as part of the wider apparatus of academic literary study, but practically speaking, the Canon with a capital “C” has come under fire for its assimilationist and depoliticizing connotations, while smaller canons organized around minoritized or historically underrepresented identities have proliferated. Even as courses on major authors such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and James Joyce persist, disciplinary self-definition has responded to the splintering of canonicity by turning away from core texts to core methodologies. If English professors cannot agree on which authors and texts should anchor the curriculum, many still believe that close reading should remain the primary pedagogy of a discipline attentive to the global circulation of English and the plurality of literary Englishes.1 The turn from adjudicating canonical texts to promoting signature methods might seem like an abdication of aesthetic judgment, but it has shifted the terms of curricular debate away from matters of gatekeeping (i.e. are these texts literary), an obviously polarizing and often racially and ethnically coded question, toward matters of cultural transmission and social reproduction (i.e. how should an English major regard literary tradition).

Gauri Viswanathan’s landmark study Masks of Conquest precedes the turn to transnationalism within English literary studies, but it is foundational to contextualizing global English literary traditions within the matrices of imperial power. In it, she argues that no serious account of the disciplinary origins of English Literature can ignore the strategic role literary study played in the consolidation of the British Empire. Published through a book series entitled “The Social Foundations of Aesthetic Forms,” Masks historicized the birth of the English literary curriculum in colonial India as an “instrument of Western hegemony in concert with commercial expansion and military action” (Reference Viswanathan167). Conceptually, she approached curriculum formation “not in the perennialist sense of an objective, essentialized entity but rather as discourse, activity, process, as one of the mechanisms through which knowledge is socially distributed and culturally validated” (Reference Viswanathan3).

When Masks of Conquest was first published in 1989, Viswanathan was wary of generalizing her study of disciplinary English beyond nineteenth-century colonial India. However, in her preface to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, she is more willing to think in comparatively colonial terms. She finds her understanding of the curriculum as an instrument of social control reflected in Isabel Hofmeyr’s work on the circulation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in Africa. Viswanathan describes how the text only became part of the English literary canon after it had served as an international tool of conversion for Christian missionaries (Reference Viswanathanvii). Ironically, the canonization of Pilgrim’s Progress within England itself depended on muting its prior evangelical role in African education campaigns. Hofmeyr’s attention to the domestication and racialization of Bunyan lends insight into the nationalist underpinnings of the discipline of English under formation in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Reference Hofmeyr222). Her meticulous study of the international and multilingual itinerary of a single work joins Viswanathan’s study of colonial archives in decolonizing the category of Englishness. Both show how the literary curriculums of the colonies provide shadow contexts for decisions made about literary curriculums at the seat of the British Empire.

Twenty-first-century movements to decolonize the university have drawn on the historical work of scholars such as Viswanathan and Hofmeyr, but their leaders have set their sights firmly on the here and now. Simukai Reference ChiguduChigudu, a Zimbabwean-born scholar and one of the leaders of the Oxford chapter of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement, argues that the Foucauldian approach to knowledge for which Viswanathan calls is heralded in the university as long as its insights apply elsewhere to another time and place. The struggle lies in bringing a critical approach to knowledge and self-fashioning to metropolitan centers of power and wealth: “But Oxford, Britain, and the west must be decolonized, too. Essential to this is advancing a richer, more complex view of the imperial past and its bearing on the present. Zimbabwe is not England’s troubled colony – it is its mirror.” Kehinde Andrews puts the matter more polemically when he writes of the RMF-Oxford movement: “In the heart of whiteness, students mobilized to reject not only their colonial schooling but the hidden curriculum embodied by the statue of racist Cecil Rhodes” (Reference Alemánix). Both assert that a colonial education is not solely a product of geography but also a matter of mentality. The hidden curriculum embodied in the statue of Rhodes reflects the ways in which diversity does not guarantee inclusivity or equity. In predominantly White institutions, Andrews asserts, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students occupy the edges of the university; their success relies on learning the unspoken rules of assimilation.

Reference ChiguduChigudu is a professor of African politics, and Andrews is a cultural sociologist, but both ground their arguments in rhetorical reversals that are distinctly Conradian. Andrews dubs Oxford the “heart of whiteness,” while Reference ChiguduChigudu calls Zimbabwe (known as Rhodesia until 1980) a “mirror” of Britain. Neither mention Heart of Darkness by name, but Reference ChiguduChigudu quotes Chinua Achebe’s unsparing critique of Heart of Darkness when he implores British citizens to do away with a curriculum that reproduces old prejudices, distortions, and mystifications of Africa. Reading Reference ChiguduChigudu’s and Andrews’s essays, I could not help but wonder where Heart of Darkness, like Pilgrim’s Progress, fit into “the hidden curriculum” embodied in the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Was the hypercanonical novel, like the statue, now an emblem of White supremacy, imperial nostalgia, and the vested interests of an old donor class who remain as committed to the ideology of the Great Books as they do to the ideology of Great Britain? Or did the novel, first published in 1898, remain a powerful if unspoken touchstone for advocates of decolonization as they explained the contemporary institutional configurations of colonial power?

I ask these questions not only as a scholar of English literature but as one of the editors of the upcoming 11th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (hereafter NAEL). First published in 1962 under the general editorship of M. H. Abrams, the NAEL was the brainchild of Abrams and George Brockway, president of W.W. Norton and Company from 1958 to 1976. Brockway recruited Abrams to create an anthology of British literature that would parallel the anthology The American Tradition in Literature. The NAEL sought to compete with two preexisting anthologies, namely The College Survey of English Literature (1942) and Major British Writers (1959), both published by Harcourt Brace. Within a few years of its publication, the NAEL captured 85 to 90 percent of the market for English literature textbooks (Shesgreen 305).

Given its market dominance over the last sixty years, the NAEL has been described as “the sine qua non of college textbooks, setting the agenda for the study of English literature in this country [the United States] and beyond” (Reference DonadioDonadio). The prominence of the anthology within the North American literary educational system has made it a lightning rod for critique in the intervening decades as feminist, multicultural, and postcolonial critics questioned not only the maleness and Whiteness of the anthology but also the narrative of literary history underpinning its organization. Such conflicts over the diversity of authors represented in the NAEL have also yielded more extreme positions among United States-based scholars against anthologizing itself.

For some, the core processes of anthology editing – selection, excerption, arrangement, and framing – too closely replicate the decontextualizing and objectifying practices of colonial epistemologies. World literature anthologies, by this definition, are an irredeemable “technology of appropriation” that center themselves by establishing dominion over literatures from elsewhere (Reference SlaughterSlaughter 54). For others, anthologies are simply incapable of relinquishing colonial categories of value. The consolidation of the category of literariness, for example, has historically excluded and diminished the importance of expressive forms that do not fit into European genres of poetry, prose, and drama. When anthologies become arbiters of literary merit and discriminating tastes, they do so by obscuring discrimination against peoples and disavowing the “unequal social relations” that remain the “scaffolding” of English as a field of study (Alemán 473). Such antianthology positions show the degree to which pessimism toward the genre has become interchangeable with pessimism toward the discipline of English.

Theories pointing to the colonial underpinnings of the anthology bring up vital truths about the enterprise. Yes, anthologists have historically treated the cultural production of the colonies as raw materials to be turned into property and profit. The practice is memorably enshrined in Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus bitterly imagines his best lines ending up in an English visitor’s book of Irish folklore: “For Haines’ chapbook … A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise” (Reference JoyceJoyce 25). Yes, anthologies inevitably center themselves and their narratives as definitive of a literary tradition. Noting these unsavory elements within the history of genre, however, should not culminate in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Critical theories of anthologizing lay the groundwork for decolonizing actually existing anthologies. This is crucial editorial work given the popularity of anthologies for introductory survey courses particularly at large state schools and community colleges, if not in the elite bastions of the Ivy League and private liberal arts colleges. Anthologies are assigned more often in less elite educational spaces, and they are the practical medium through which many teachers first expose students to the premises, objects, and methods of English as a discipline. Without interrogating the organizational principles of anthologies in light of real-world use, we cannot mount a decolonized approach to English literary history that triangulates the canon, the curriculum, and the classroom.

Theorizing the English Literary Anthology

Critiques of anthologies, grounded in postcolonial theory and ethnic studies, treat the genre as representative of and implicated in a power structure much larger than itself. Given their general suspicion and rejection of the anthological project, it is unsurprising that these critiques have little to say about the anthology as an everyday teaching tool. For all their limitations, anthologies remain appealing to instructors and students because they are a relatively affordable one-stop shop for an entire course. To think about the anthology as a classroom text is to contextualize more abstract questions about the politics of its construction within the concrete demands of its adopters.

In 2001, as part of its inaugural issue, the journal Pedagogy did just that. Its editor, Christine Reference ChaneyChaney, convened a roundtable of professors who regularly teach with anthologies and asked them to compare the 7th edition of the NAEL with the Longman Anthology of British Literature. The premise of the discussion was simple: anthologies are widely used in the teaching of college English, yet rarely theorized as such (Reference ChaneyChaney 192). This was a problem because, as the comparisons of the Norton and Longman anthologies revealed, ideological convictions shaped not just the construction of anthologies but also instructor preferences for the disciplinary visions on offer. Although the editors of English literature anthologies rarely position themselves as promoting a grand narrative of literary history, anthological paratexts (the preface, introduction, table of contents, headnotes, and illustrations) and scope (six centuries of literary history packed into a hefty tome or tomes) all contribute to one. As one respondent put it, drawing on Nietzsche, anthology editors face a choice between presenting their collated canons as forms of “monumental” history or “critical” history (Reference DrakeDrake 199). And college instructors, upon adopting an anthology for a survey course, are essentially deciding whether the literary history they teach will be monumental or critical as well.

Of course, the answer in most classrooms will be somewhere in the middle of these two poles, but how to negotiate that middle is something that anthology editors do with classroom instructors and not for them. Norton commissions surveys from all its adopters asking them to evaluate the selections they deem essential and to offer feedback on the framework and presentation of selections. In preparation for editing the 11th edition, I reviewed the surveys based on the 10th edition of the NAEL and found that many instructors recognized and wanted redress for the racialized and gendered exclusions forged by previous iterations of the canon. In practical terms, such redress called for the inclusion of more women and writers of color, but as a whole these writers were less commonly taught than the traditionally canonical figures who respondents considered essential (Joseph Conrad and T. S. Eliot foremost among them). In thinking about how to meet the needs of college instructors, I found a diversity model of anthologizing insufficient; we needed to rethink our presentation of essential works and canonical authors through a decolonizing frame.

I thought again of Nietzsche’s lexicon of monumental and critical histories as it might organize a survey course on English literature. These terms, introduced in his 1874 essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” formed part of Nietzsche’s larger meditation on educational culture at his own historical moment. They reflect his turn away from the disinterested scientific mode of knowledge, enshrined in the Germany university system that employed him, toward a more philosophical engagement with history as a life-enhancing activity. Nietzsche was concerned with the interests different models of history perpetuate in the present. A survey of English literature tilted toward his concept of monumental history would resemble a Great Books course, while one tilted toward critical history would likely be grounded in cultural-studies methodologies. For Nietzsche, monumental histories unify and beautify the past into a series of high points that dull attention to their animating causes in the name of producing “effects in themselves” (Reference Nietzsche70). Such effects are totems of inspiration and are described mystically as “something the brave wear over their hearts like an amulet” (Reference Nietzsche70). Critical histories on the other hand emphasize the power of human beings to resist idealizing the past and instead to “break up and dissolve a part of the past” (Reference Nietzsche75). Critical histories, like monumental histories, serve the living, but in different ways. Whereas monumental histories offer the encapsulation of an immemorial greatness, critical histories in their irreverence offer liberation from the conditioning of our forefathers.

Although unshackling ourselves from the values of the past is at the heart of progressivism, Nietzsche warns against mistaking liberation for exoneration. He posits that the danger of critical history lies in the eagerness of its adherents to distance themselves from those aspects of their inheritance that would seem to merit destruction. For Nietzsche, we are the products of earlier generations, that is, “of their aberrations, passions, mistakes, and indeed of their crimes … If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them” (Reference Nietzsche76). Nietzsche does not specify who this “we” is, but it certainly seems like he is talking about the beneficiaries of the past, for whom turning a critical eye upon previous generations seems one way of rectifying complicity with them.

A “we” limited to the beneficiaries is not the “we” conjured by RMF and various other decolonization movements across multiple universities on multiple continents. The “we” of these movements is as internally fissured as the “we” of the university populations to which they belong. While it is tempting to accuse student activists of an us-versus-them mentality, what essays like Reference ChiguduChigudu’s clarify are attempts to change the conditions under which shared space in the university is forged. The campaign to remove monuments whose primary purpose is to glorify figures whose complicated and often violent legacies should not be obscured is part of a larger call for the recontextualization of monumental histories within their contested legacies across various lines (color, class, and continent being the most visible).

Literary anthologies as taught in the classroom have an important role to play in reappraising the past and reconceptualizing common ground in the university. Today’s decolonization movements embrace critique for its associations with structural analysis and revolutionary politics, but they also share Nietzsche’s rejection of “critical history” as a form of self-purification from the shameful dimensions of lineage. The English literary anthology, precisely because of its long historical and geographical span, is an essential locus for telling the global story of English lineage anew. Rather than putting its multicentury narrative of literary history to assimilationist ends (for example, framing writers of color as indebted to a tradition defined by William Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot), an anthology such as the NAEL can draw on the insights of postcolonial and minority writers to offer a much more complex rendition of how classic forms were put to use in colonial educational contexts to eradicate pride in or connection to local culture. When instructors teach the anthology in the classroom, they can use its selections and paratextual matter to address the canon as a cultural institution buoyed by the economic might of the British Empire but also upended by those subjects who felt both initiated into and alienated by English literary tradition.

To offer but one example, Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite coined the term “Reference Brathwaitenation language” to denote the aesthetic and political task of breaking out of the “entire pentametric model” defined by the English poetic tradition from Chaucer onward (“Reference BrathwaiteNation Language” 864). Iambic pentameter represents the sound of English as an “imposed language,” whereas its deformation through African folk song and syncopated rhythms enabled Brathwaite to dislocate and indigenize English through the sound and meter of his Caribbean milieu. Brathwaite’s deep attention to the components of language led him to focus on the relationship between the sound of poetry and the visual appearance of poems on the page. His later poetry supplemented Reference Brathwaitenation language with what he called “Sycorax video style,” that is a style that emphasized typographical experimentation and the use of word-processing tools to retrieve a version of the written word that “could still hear itself speak” (Reference BrathwaiteConVERSations 167). Brathwaite may have rejected the pentameter of Chaucer, but he uses the affordances of the computer, its selection of fonts and the scroll function of the screen, to return to another, less Christian, account of the Middle Ages defined by the illuminated manuscript and the historical interactions between Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.

As the name implies, Sycorax video style also sent Brathwaite back to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In his poem “Letter to Sycorax,” he reimagined Sycorax, mother to Caliban, as a ghost living inside his computer and inspiring his reclamation of the tools of literacy from a colonial print culture. Writing in light, as Brathwaite would call the practice of composing on a computer, countered the symbolic weight of Prospero’s book and guided his poetic return to various points of origination: the birth of English literary tradition, the slave trade, the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, and the spoils that resulted from those conquests.

Brathwaite made his NAEL debut in the 8th edition in a section entitled “Nation and Language.” This section, which appeared in “Volume 2: The Twentieth Century and After” under the editorships of Jahan Ramazani and Jon Stallworthy and the general editorship of Stephen Greenblatt, was the first to address directly territorial decolonization and the migration of Brown and Black peoples from the former colonies to Britain. “Nation and Language” arrayed writers of color alongside White working-class, Scottish, and Irish writers. In addition to Brathwaite, it featured Claude McKay, Hugh MacDiarmid, Brian Friel, Louise Bennett, Ngügĩ wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Tony Harrison, and John Agard. In the 9th edition, the section would be revised as “Nation, Race, and Language,” and Hanif Kureishi, Grace Nichols, and M. NourbeSe Philip would replace MacDiarmid, Friel, Harrison, and Agard. In the 10th edition, the section continued to diversify the writers represented in the anthology by broaching historical and political conditions through the linguistic question of “which English?” (Reference Ramazani853). The choice of whether to abandon English for Indigenous languages, to write in a vernacular or creole, or to adopt Standard English carried within it the need to balance the marks left by the British Empire with the marks its former subjects could leave on the English language.

As the NAEL editorial team prepared the 11th edition, matters of nation, race, and language suffused every period of literary history. The editorial team thought comprehensively about how the perspectives of postcolonial and immigrant writers might alter the selections and normative framework of the anthology as a whole. Period editors, while respectful of one another’s specialist knowledge, also engaged in Reference Brathwaiteconversations across period boundaries to determine how older literary works signify differently across centuries and political geographies. We debated whether the profoundly complicated legacy of The Tempest in the Caribbean should exert retrospective pressure on which Shakespeare plays were included in “Volume B: The Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Century” and how those plays should be paratextually framed through headnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies. As we finalized our selections for the 11th edition, period editors decolonized our principles of selection by recognizing how the global diffusion of English literature was grounded in the power dynamics of territorial, educational, and cultural imperialism. The colonial legacy of English in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries alters our choice of representative and significant texts from previous centuries.

And yet to say that a shared interest in decolonization guides changes to our organizing principles is not to suggest that NAEL editors are simply plucking concepts of racial or linguistic difference from the present and applying them to the past. In their revisions to “Volume A: The Middle Ages,” editors Julie Orlemanski and James Simpson find that a period-specific engagement with race demands following notions of racial identity into older discourses of bodily, religious, and cultural difference. Following the lead of premodern critical race studies, they aim to pluralize the genealogies of race as a literary and cultural lens by including texts that stage European fantasies of Islam and Judaism and explore geographic alterity. For instance, the 11th edition features a romance known as The King of Tars in which religious difference is written on the body when the conversion of a character from Islam to Christianity results in the apparent whitening of his skin. Selections from the Book of John Mandeville, a popular travel narrative, survey the wonders supposedly witnessed on a journey as far east as India and thus give a sense of how cultural distance and foreignness were figured by writers of the time. The editors also include texts in translation such as a poem originally written in Hebrew by Meir ben Elijah of Norwich, ruminating on the painful experiences of Jewish persecution leading up to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.2

Brathwaite’s rejection of one powerful strand of English poetic tradition, the iambic pentameter, led him back to other strands of English literary tradition and textual culture, namely scrolls and illuminated manuscripts. It also led him to a version of the Middle Ages that privileged points of intercultural contact rather than autochthonous culture. We see this version of the Middle Ages emerging from revised editions of the NAEL as Orlemanski and Simpson draw attention to the imagining of cultural difference within the period. They also explain the salience of medieval literature to recognizing the religious and iconographic dimensions of modern racisms. Such an editorial strategy builds on the specific interventions of contemporary scholars of color who have worked tirelessly to render race a legible category within earlier periods of literary history. These same scholars have also had to fight against their own persistent marginalization within the profession of English literature and were among the first to denounce misinformed appropriations of medieval symbols by alt-right and White nationalist groups.

Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson have argued that remaining studiously neutral in the face of White supremacist mythologizing results in cultural histories of early literatures that unwittingly “assist far-right fictions.” They call upon fellow scholars in the early periods (where scholars of color are less likely to be represented) to confront how the colonial project is woven into canonical texts, and they advocate for editorial and teaching approaches that transmit the political complexities of early literatures. For medievalist Mary Reference Rambaran-OlmRambaran-Olm, disabling racist fantasies of a glorified Anglo-Saxon past also demands decentering Eurocentric narratives of ancient literary history and doing the work of historical recovery. She foregrounds figures such as Hadrian and Theodore – late seventh- and early eighth-century monks and “refugees from Asia Minor” who brought Greek Christian traditions to England by way of Syria and Palestine. The Bigger 6 Collective, started by a group of scholars dedicated to fighting structural racism in the field of Romantic literature, takes its name from the shared mission to promote scholarly and creative work by historically marginalized people and to give a wider view of the Romantic period than the one on offer through figures such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Shelley, and Keats (the Big Six).

The periodic revision processes of anthologies like the NAEL respond to the latest developments in scholarship and to the work of antiracist academic collectives such as Bigger 6, Medievalists of Color, and Shakerace. These groups have been at the vanguard of decolonizing work in the North American academy, and they have explicitly tied research innovation (or the lack thereof) to hiring and recruitment practices within the profession. Their interrogation of the English literary tradition yields not a convenient revisionism but a compelling need for renewal in ways that connect literary research to the bodies doing and teaching the research. The suspension of a literary dominant, for example a canonical meter or set of writers, engenders a return to the historical and cultural milieu from which it emerged. I have come to think of the suspension that is also a reinvigoration as central to a decolonized theory of anthologizing. Such a theory uses the exigencies of the contemporary moment to exact new forms of recognition and amplification from the narratives we develop about literature in the English language.

Reimagining Literariness

Certainly, critics of English as a discipline might respond that the NAEL, by virtue of its scope and mission, can never go far enough in dismantling a Eurocentric canon or displacing traditional curricular categories built on the paradigms of major authors and genres (poetry, drama, fiction). Anthologies organized around parallel traditions (for example, Caribbean literature or postcolonial poetry) or a more capacious category of textuality (for example, Black British writing) play a vital role in the formation of distinct collective identities.3 In turn, the publication of identity-based anthologies creates the strategic groundwork for the recognition and consolidation of fields and can serve as a prerequisite to the curricular accommodation of in-depth courses on minority or diasporic literatures.

While I welcome anthologies dedicated to raising the visibility and accessibility of less-taught literary cultures, I do not want to underestimate the power of changing the story a dominant literary culture tells about itself. Rethinking the contours of the NAEL leverages the influence of a historically powerful publishing enterprise in universities and classrooms where decolonizing methodologies are not always incompatible with notions of canonicity. The most faithful adopters of the NAEL teach at large state institutions in the southern United States, in particular Texas and Alabama, where introductory survey courses are changing but the category of “Great Books” has not fallen out of fashion. Working with these instructors demands meeting them where they are and introducing changes to the anthology that recognize progress made on the ground.

When Martin Puchner, the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature (NAWL), met with instructors in Alabama, he found that their curricular understanding of “greatness” had evolved from an emphasis on Western civilization to a more comparatively religious and civilizational approach. These anthology users strove to give their students access to “the foundational texts of foreign cultures” and to address an increasingly large cohort of students from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea (the four largest groups reflected in the internationalization of United States higher education). Learning more about the changing constituencies and continuing values of Southern universities spurred Puchner to revise the operative definition of literature at work in the NAWL. No longer grounded in modern categories like the novel or even ancient ones like poetry, the anthological category of world literature now encompasses religious scripture, orature, and philosophical writing.

The move to deprovincialize Great Books courses and world literature anthologies overlaps with the aims of decolonizing the English departments that house such courses. For Caroline Levine, a member of the NAWL editorial team and a scholar originally trained in nineteenth-century British literature, the political potential of anthologizing world literature lies in foregrounding “literature’s role in a large-scale story of global inequality” (Reference Levine218). As Levine argues, literature presupposes literacy in the written word, with the consequence that world literature anthologies reproduce a European progress narrative in which mass literacy becomes an index of civilizational superiority and orality becomes an index of civilizational simplicity. Given that 90 percent of the world “could not read as recently as 1850,” Levine pleads for the category of world literature to make room for orature (226). By recognizing and granting prestige to complex oral works and to the oral performances of written works, the world literature anthology decolonizes its own standards of cultural achievement. It makes room for the complex verbal artistry of modern African and Asian cultures while also granting pride of place to the songs, folktales, and legends of Indigenous and enslaved peoples in colonial and nineteenth-century American literature – groups historically given short shrift by the yardstick of literacy.

The NAWL approach mitigates the historically exclusionary and misleading effects of the category of “literariness” without dispensing with the commitment to honor aesthetic achievement in the verbal arts. Its reckoning with literacy as an instrument of power, discipline, and indoctrination recalls Brathwaite’s stance in his essays on nation language and Sycorax video style. It also raises the question of whether a Norton anthology can meaningfully evolve beyond the format of the printed book to make use of digital platforms in a decolonizing fashion. Can we connect transcriptions of oral poetry with recordings or performances of it? The 10th edition of the NAEL includes poetry by Black British poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Patience Agbabi in addition to Bennett and Brathwaite. While the linguistic ingenuity of each of these poets is amply available on the page, sound and performance are indelible elements of their work and are not reproducible within the limits set by the printed book.

Yet if we can marshal the resources of the e-book format, we can create a literary anthology across print and digital formats that allows teachers and students to access literature – that is, read, hear, and experience it – as the multimedia category that it is. Reimagining the anthology across book formats means thinking of it as a transmedia genre. This is essential for multiple reasons, not least that electronic literature is unable to be anthologized satisfactorily in the codex form. The kinetic poetry of bpNichol, the Flash animations of Young-Hae Change Heavy Industries, and the Twitter fiction of Teju Cole show that twenty-first-century literature is evolving in ways that demand anthologizers think with and beyond the printed book. These forward-looking examples provide opportunities to reappraise how past entries have been anthologized and whether they could be anthologized differently.

Take Agbabi for example. Although she identifies primarily as a poet, as opposed to a spoken-word poet, she has talked about the centrality of the “voice with its cadences” (Reference Novak and FischerNovak and Fischer 361) to her body of work: “For me it is about trying to get to the emotional truth of a poem through the sound of it” (Reference Novak and Fischer358). While the poet laureate of Canterbury, she began composing Telling Tales, a rewriting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the voices of diverse members of British society who would mirror the nation’s twenty-first-century demographics. The Wife of Bath becomes a Nigerian immigrant, the wife of Bafa, who speaks in rhyming couplets and in the cadences of a Nigerian English that irregularly follows iambic pentameter. Agbabi describes the project as “retelling the stories that Chaucer himself retold from those circulating around medieval Europe.” Telling Tales draws on a variety of poetic forms from Chaucer’s rime royale to the sonnet corona. Into these forms, Agbabi blends the sounds of regional accents garnered from audio recordings and transcriptions available through the Sounds Familiar? website of the British Library. Her collection hails Chaucer’s by emphasizing the conjunctures of oral and written cultures in ways that represent ordinary speakers from across all levels of society.

I would like to anthologize Agbabi’s poems from Telling Tales on the printed page and through recordings of their oral performance. The same goes for Bennett’s “dialect” poetry, which she performed for mass audiences in the Caribbean under the stage name of Miss Lou. Bennett’s “Jamaica Language,” which currently appears in the NAEL, is a radio monologue that begins “Listen, na!” (856); yet the anthology does not yet give readers the ability to do so. Norton publishers and users have understandably prioritized the printed book since the inception of the anthology in 1962, but it is high time to make theoretically informed use of the e-book format for texts that were written for stage and page, ear and eye.4 The e-book presents an opportunity for decolonizing the operative notion of literariness in the NAEL so that it encompasses more than the written word and speaks to constituents who have experienced print culture as a tool of cultural alienation and subordination. If we as editors of the 11th edition can rise to the challenge of creating a multimedia anthology, the next step will be convincing anthology adopters that recordings of performances are not supplements to the written poem but essential versions of the literary work.

An Anthology Is Not a Monument

The decolonizing of the NAEL will proceed in tandem with the decolonizing of college English pedagogy. As survey courses become more diverse, comparative, and ideally multimediated, the histories professors offer about literatures in the English language should also become more inclusive of the varied and entangled literacies of the anglophone world. When discussing the NAEL, Abrams insisted that the anthology not become “a monument” (Reference DonadioDonadio). The refusal of the analogy between anthologies and monuments seems especially prescient in the wake of the global RMF movements. Monuments in these movements have become symbols of institutional ossification and recalcitrance in the face of social progress.

Anthologies collect great, some might say monumental, works of literature, but how editors frame and revisit these works over updated editions cannot remain the same. The continued value of anthologies of English literature and for that matter world literature is not a foregone conclusion; indeed, the historical association of anthologies with the cultural arm of imperialism cannot be ignored. For the anthology to be a genre with a bright future, its publishers and editors will have to acknowledge and redress its dark past. An anthology is not a monument, but it is a balancing act. The task is to balance the project of literary and cultural custodianship with a responsiveness to historical change writ large and to demographic change within universities. Anthology makers serve teachers and students who likely do not share the same cultural and social norms even if they are sharing classroom space. The more we can ground our theories of anthologizing in an awareness of that diversity, the more capable we will be of thinking concretely about the revision, transmission, and decolonization of literary tradition.

Chapter 8 Confabulation as Decolonial Pedagogy in Singapore Literature

Joanne Leow

it seemed to us that during such times, no fiction could be stranger, or more exciting, than the truth

Sonny Liew, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

LIYANA: So we can’t imagine ourselves outside of imperial history?

SIEW: That would be indulging in counterfactuals.

LIYANA: Then why are we even here?

Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin, Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்
The Singapore Bicentennial and the Work of State Pedagogy

In 2019, the Singapore state unironically commenced a year-long commemoration of the bicentennial of the country’s colonial founding with “SG200,” a series of art exhibitions, interactive audiovisual productions, talks, community engagement projects, and other events. The first commissioned work was unveiled with great fanfare on January 2, 2019: the usually white polymarble statue of Singapore’s colonial founder Sir Stamford Raffles had been papere.d over by the artist Teng Kai Wei to enable it to blend into the city skyline. Making Raffles invisible through this optical illusion, this symbolic gesture was ostensibly meant to question the colonizer’s centrality to Singapore’s modern mythmaking. The disappearing act of the statue was, however, merely a temporary publicity stunt. Quoting Kwame Nkrumah, online commentator Paul Jerusalem’s humorous meme pointed out that Teng’s work could be read subversively as a commentary on the neocolonial reality of Singapore’s urban spaces, where the influence and legacy of the coloniality remain firmly entrenched even as they have become invisible or unremarkable to most.1

The momentary erasure of Singapore’s most famous colonial figure at the start of the Bicentennial wrapped up in his legacy reflects the contradictory ways Singapore has begun to wrestle with its postindependence decision to overtly retain much of the material, symbolic, and political legacies of the British Empire. Indeed, two days after Teng’s initial alteration of the Raffles statue, a new intervention entitled “The Arrivals” appeared, with the statues of Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah, and Naraina Pillai being placed alongside Raffles. Not only were non-European migrants being celebrated, the Srivijayan prince from Palembang Sang Nila Utama was placed in front of Raffles and the others as a precolonial founder of Singapore in 1299.2

While other decolonizing and anticolonial movements have sought, in recent years, to destroy and remove statues of colonizers and slave-owners, the Singapore state’s most recent approach appears to be to camouflage the centrality of its colonial history with the cosmetic addition of other marginal narratives. Minister Josephine Teo, cochair of the Singapore Bicentennial Ministerial Steering Committee, noted that the purpose of the Bicentennial was to uncover new materials and stories about Singapore’s past and to develop “immersive and interactive techniques” to tell these stories (quoted in Reference KwaKwa 475). More extensively, SG200 and its events functioned as a state-wide curriculum that enforced Singapore’s neocolonial nation-building. Aware that solely focusing on colonialism might be out of step with the times, the organizers insisted that they were instead cognizant of the 700-year longue durée of Singapore’s history, seemingly redefining the word “bicentennial” with nary a thought.

Nevertheless, the beginning of British colonial rule continued to be the undeniable fulcrum around which the national narrative was construed. In his speech for the launch of these commemorations, Prime Minister Reference LeeLee Hsien Loong was frank about the story he wanted to tell regarding the country’s British colonial legacy:

1819 marked the beginning of a modern, outward-looking and multicultural Singapore. Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today. Without 1819, we would not have 1965, and we would certainly not have celebrated the success of SG50. 1819 made these possible. And this is why the Singapore Bicentennial is worth commemorating.

(“Speech by PM Reference LeeLee Hsien Loong”)

Lee credits colonialism with the birth of modernity, globalization, multiculturalism, and indeed, the independent Singaporean state. He further predicates the existence of the postcolonial nation on its colonial predecessor. As the official website puts it, it was a “sequel” to SG50, a state celebration in 2015 of the jubilee of Singapore’s independence. In constructing the event of the Singapore Bicentennial, the state attempted to control what colonialism signified for the postcolonial state.

Even though this may seem retrograde, it is perhaps not inaccurate in summing up Singapore’s self-narration of postcolonial exceptionalism and continuity. As Philip Reference HoldenHolden rightly posits, Raffles’s arrival is seen as “an imposition of certain forms of necessary modern rationality – town planning, good governance, a commitment to free trade – that the postcolonial nation-state would realise in the fullness of time” (Reference HoldenHolden 639). This discourse is an integral part of the dominant narrative of an orderly handover of power from the British colonial authorities to an elite English-educated ruling class. Aside from the more obvious visual markers of colonial architecture that were preserved in its central business district, the legal frameworks (including legislation retained from emergency colonial laws regarding detention without trial and restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression), civil service, language, and systems of justice and governance are all deeply indebted to colonial legacies. Singapore’s education policies and curricula continue to be intimately tied to colonial standards, with thousands of exam scripts for the standardized General Certificate of Education (GCE) level exams being assessed annually by the UK-based Cambridge Assessments. Celebrating the Bicentennial in these contexts becomes a logical pedagogical exercise, one that attempts to create coherence in the everyday lived experience of Singaporeans surrounded by these material and structural legacies.

In this chapter, I examine two highly successful and popular contemporary Singaporean texts that are not only exemplars of this growing contemporary literary and filmic archive but further evince a counterpedagogical awareness that hinges upon what I theorize as dissident tactics of confabulation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines to confabulate as “to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory” (OED, 2017). In the Singaporean context, my theorization of the term points to the role of the fictional in the face of wilful state-sponsored amnesia and suppression. Both Sonny Liew’s Eisner award-winning graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Reference Liew2015) and Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin’s play Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் (Reference Alfian and Neo2019) directly confront the state’s self-narration. Both texts self-reflexively collate and examine historical documents, events, and artifacts by reenacting, reimagining, and crucially, inventing stories and characters. Liew’s imaginary cartoonist and satirist Charlie Chan Hock Chye provides an artistic, visual, and narrational counterpoint to dominant state narratives. Told in a pastiche-driven style, the Künstlerroman twines the artist’s ultimate failure with his vividly imagined alternate pasts and futures, all tied to an instructive history of comic styles through the latter half of the twentieth century. Reference Alfian, Joraimi, Sai, Alfian, Joraimi and SaiAlfian and Neo’s multilingual play follows a study group, Raffles Must Fall, who come together to investigate lesser-known anticolonial stories from Singapore’s history. Using historical documents and speeches, the multiracial cast of actors create plays within the play: hyperdramatic, metatheatrical reenactments that ultimately employ the theater as a processual space of learning and unlearning. In the absence of formal curriculum reform toward the work of decolonization, I argue that confabulation is a crucial literary and pedagogical mode in these attempts toward creating and disseminating truly decolonial narratives of Singapore. It functions in the absence of a decolonizing literary curriculum in the country and of free and open space for artistic expression. It carefully sidesteps the state’s desire for a “factual,” fixed history, singular modes of narration, and its censorious instincts.

Thus, these texts stand in pointed contrast to the Singapore Bicentennial’s “signature event”: “From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience @ Fort Canning.” This audiovisual, theatrical, and filmic extravaganza was set, seemingly without irony, in a former British military installation. In an echo of how many colonial buildings in the city center have been gutted and repurposed, the creators of this multimedia exhibit remodeled the interior of the spaces to create purpose-built sets and produce a carefully scripted, immersive version of Singapore’s history. Helmed by Michael Chiang, a playwright, and Beatrice Chia-Richmond, a theater director, who both have experience directing the annual National Day Parade, the two-part experience had a familiar arc of mystical beginnings, colonial vision, war-time suffering, and manifest destiny. “The Time Traveller” was divided into five acts (Beginnings, Arrival, Connectivity, Occupation, Destiny) like a classic play, while the accompanying “Pathfinder” was a series of nonguided exhibits set in a park, featuring maps, artifacts, and other more static objects. “The Time Traveller” employed live actors, surround screens and sound, and elaborate water and light features to provide what Gene Tan, the executive director of the Singapore Bicentennial Office, called a history lesson translated “to the mainstream audience in an emotional way” (“Creating the Bicentennial Experience”). Tellingly, the British Occupation is subsumed under the acts “Arrival” and “Connectivity,” while – consistent with the dominant narrative – the Japanese Occupation during the World War II is depicted as the pivotal and violent conflict in this history. Decolonization from British rule, on the other hand, is glossed over as part of Singapore’s continuing trajectory as a successful global port city. The show represented an intensification of the cooptation of meaningful personal and collective narratives in service of the state’s larger goal of affective nation-building. It was held up as a great success, with the official metrics recording over 760,000 visitors and their 97.3% approval rating. For the majority of its population, the Singapore state’s power to shape its foundational myths through mass pedagogy is far-reaching.

The desire of the postcolonial nation-state or any nation-state to script its historical narratives is, of course, nothing new. The earnest tone adopted in the accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary about this lavish exhibit amply illustrates what Homi Bhabha notes in “Nation and Narration”: that the nation-space is processual and “meanings may be partial because they are in medias res; and history may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image” (Reference BhabhaBhabha 3). Chiang, Chia-Richmond, and Tan repeatedly reiterate their desire to “create … emotion” in this “history lesson” and to construct “a very intimate encounter with Singapore,” and further to define “what it means to be Singaporean” (“Creating the Bicentennial Experience”). The need for the state to constantly revise, revisit, and repeat the enduring narrative of Singapore’s vulnerability and exceptionalism post-Empire reached a fever pitch during SG200.

But the tensions inherent in nation-building on a foundation of colonial development pose interesting conundrums. In their introduction to the seminal critical anthology The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (Reference Hong and Huang2008), Lysa Hong and Jianli Huang note how the country’s history has been reverse engineered to “shape and disseminate a sense of national identity which privileges political identification at the level of the nation-state – a product of negotiations with historical identities” (Reference Hong and HuangHong and Huang 1). Most crucially, they argue, “the history that the state tells of itself, and the degree of its success in getting its citizens to embrace that history as their own, are thus central to the process of its nation-building” (1). The use of a powerfully emotive and manipulative, multimedia-enhanced state storytelling apparatus represents an obvious manifestation of insecurity about the incoherence of a bicentennial narrative that purports to cover 700 years of history. In her analysis of more recent state attempts at storytelling during the Bicentennial, Cheng Nien Yuan cautions against accepting state-sanctioned plurality without skepticism: “unlike the relatively straightforward top-down approach of Rajaratnam’s era (‘this is the past and we say so’), the storytelling state gives an illusion of democratic engagement and inclusivity of voices” (Reference ChengCheng).

Ragini Tharoor Reference SrinivasanSrinivasan points out, in her critique of Bhabha’s “DissemiNation”: “The problem posed by the nation was never simply power. The problem is whose” (Reference SrinivasanSrinivasan). In calling for “less subversion and more persuasion. Less disruption, more renewed solidarity. Less repetition with a difference and more pedagogy of difference,” Reference SrinivasanSrinivasan turns our attention to what Bhabha labels as “the unspoken tradition[s]” of “colonials, postcolonials, migrants, minorities … who will not be contained” (Bhabha, quoted by Reference SrinivasanSrinivasan) by the state’s singular narration. She posits that it is overdue for these traditions to be spoken and to be heard. A similar impetus toward decolonizing redress has meant that Singapore’s lavish emphasis of its colonial histories during the Bicentennial led a new generation of scholars, activists, and artists to critique the accepted state pedagogy, asking the fraught and complex questions about what a decolonial Singapore might mean. In fact, the state’s own extravagant and multifaceted attempts at consolidating the event of the Bicentennial led paradoxically to a slew of theatrical, artistic, and academic explorations of alternative modes of grappling with colonial and postcolonial history and historiography. This included a special interdisciplinary issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and an edited collection of critical essays, interviews, and historical documents entitled Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History (Reference Alfian, Joraimi, Sai, Alfian, Joraimi and Sai2021). Numerous plays were also written and performed in 2019, including The Necessary Stage’s Civilised, Drama Box’s TanahAir 水•土, and The Art of Strangers’ Miss British.

These efforts have joined an increasing number of texts in the past decade – including Tan Pin Pin’s banned documentary To Singapore with Love (2013), Jeremy Tiang’s novel State of Emergency (2017), Alfian Sa’at’s flash fictions Malay Sketches (2013), Alfian and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s play Hotel (2015), Wong Souk Yee’s novel Death of A Perm Sec (2017), Jason’s Soo’s documentary Untracing the Conspiracy (2015), and Suratman Markasan’s novel Penghulu (2012) – that have reexamined suppressed episodes in Singapore’s history. Collectively, this body of work offers a much-needed alternate national literary canon and remedial historiography that emphasizes anticolonial movements, Indigenous communities displaced by state development and control, and the loss of political rights such as a free press, the freedom to organize and assemble, and unfettered artistic expression.

“Of My Country, That Is Yet to Be”: The Multiplicity of National Narratives in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

In its first impulse, Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a text that seeks to educate the reader. On the surface, it is an introduction to “the art” of a neglected but vital comics artist in Singapore. The imaginary life and artistic tribulations of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, however, are pedagogical strategies that allow Liew to twine a primer on historic cartooning styles and genres with a self-reflexive accounting of Singapore’s repressed histories of anticolonial student uprisings, detentions, and exiles of political dissidents. Through the confabulated, fictional character of Charlie, the text not only delineates the vulnerable status of the artist and student in the authoritarian state but also presents alternate, confabulated histories and futures in Charlie’s unpublished, antiestablishment oeuvre. Crucially, Liew represents himself in the comic as an interlocuter drawn into the framing narrative of this work, asking questions of Charlie, presenting his work with commentary and research, and ultimately acting as both student and teacher. Much of the text has explanatory captions and, in one chapter, even footnotes in the form of a separate comic strip, where the comic-book rendition of Liew himself attempts to engage a skeptical, child-like Singaporean.

By interpolating himself into the narrative, Liew creates complex systems of meaning-making in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye that force the reader to engage with the story on multiple registers with critical distance and skepticism. We are learning from Charlie but also about his frailties, hubris, and failures through his art. Similarly, we are learning about various episodes from Singapore’s history as they are entwined with Charlie’s life story, his historical research, his artistic process, and his (and Liew’s) ambivalence. The confabulation of Charlie’s life is a satire of a nationalist Bildungsroman, since he ultimately fails in his ambition to be Singapore’s greatest comics artist. Yet it is also a failure that allows us to consider the grave tragedies hidden beneath Singapore’s glossy postcolonial success. The text poses a simple question: if Charlie is meant to be a forgotten artist, discovered and presented by Liew, then what else in the story of Singapore has been similarly neglected, buried, and censored?

Read all together in a dizzying palimpsest of historical documents, sketches, drafts, and comic strips of incredibly diverse styles, Liew’s book acts as an alternate literary curriculum that pairs Singapore’s political history with a transnational, cosmopolitan set of artistic influences. The tropes of learning and questioning continue as a through thread in all the chapters. In the first two, we begin our education at the start of Charlie’s journey as an artist where he privileges the “five foot way libraries” or “pavement libraries” of comic books (Reference LiewLiew 6–7) over the English language school system that he has been enrolled in. The very medium of drawing itself is seen as an act of studying (Reference LiewLiew 19). This archive of material provides a rich fodder for Charlie to create his confabulated, allegorical political cartoons. They also provide the opportunity of the text to illustrate the gaps and absences in Singapore’s dominant history.

Each chapter of the text pairs a controversial episode in Singapore’s modern history with Charlie’s life and art. Liew’s text weaves the confabulatory web of Charlie’s life around crucial events such as anticolonial student protests the end of the Japanese Occupation and Malayan Emergency, Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and the detention without trial of opposition politicians, and the censorship and suppression of a free press. Each unpublished or obscure comic that Charlie produces in response to the historical events happening around him holds up these events through the prisms of science fiction, satire, allegory, and counterfactual narratives. They refract the uncertainty that undercuts the official versions and the manipulation inherent in all storytelling. For instance, Charlie recounts the story of the sixteen-year-old student Chong Lon Chong, who was struck by a stray bullet during labor unrest in 1955 and later died of his wounds. The official version of events blames his death on the procommunist students who paraded him around to inflame the crowd, but Charlie pinpoints the unknowns in the actual reports of the incident. He notes, “not having been there to see and hear for ourselves, perhaps we can never really know the truth, asking ‘what exactly is the story being told?’” (Reference LiewLiew 55). In doing so, the text reveals the confabulatory nature of the state’s narratives themselves, even as they purport to be the factual accounting of events.

In the final chapter of Liew’s text, Singapore’s possible futures and presents intersect in a counterfactual version of its present in Charlie’s comic “Days of August.” In this version of Singapore, the skyline remains iconic and unchanged, yet Lee Kuan Yew’s rival Lim Chin Siong is in power, and the former has taken himself into self-exile in Cambodia. In the subsequent narration, the text rewrites Singapore’s history, in part as a homage to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle, to create a Singapore where the ruling party’s crackdowns and detentions of its socialist rivals had never happened, and the latter had won the elections in 1963. Jini Kim Reference WatsonWatson argues that Liew’s text “knowingly plays on the fact that it is almost impossible to imagine the future of Singapore otherwise even had its political history turned out differently,” pointing out that “the very task of imagining, from the present, the postcolonial state as vehicle of emancipative, redemptive futurity is at once absolute necessary and almost impossible” (Reference WatsonWatson 182). Charlie makes a cameo as a successful artist in this alternate universe, who even has a gallery dedicated to his work. In other ways, Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew’s similarities are highlighted. In another interview depicted in the comic, Lim fends off questions about a “cult of personality” (Reference LiewLiew 277) that has arisen around his name. Liew’s alternate history in “Days of August” thus reveals the official narrative of People’s Action Party (PAP) dominance and inevitability as one that is arbitrary.

Liew’s text seeks to flesh out these other possible paths and to confabulate alternate narratives of Singapore’s history. In effect, this opens up the possibilities of how Singapore might have achieved decolonization in ways that did not leave power in the hands of an English educated elite, which was aligned with the British colonial project. Predictably, the Singapore state, with its unyielding pedagogical narrative of the birth of the nation, has been less than enthusiastic about The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. While the text initially benefited from a National Arts Council grant, this was quickly withdrawn due to what were deemed politically sensitive reasons.3 This grant withdrawal signaled the government’s tacit disapproval of having the text taught in public schools or other state institutions of higher learning. The state thus foreclosed an opportunity to use the space of the literary classroom and curriculum to grapple with counterfactual speculative fiction that might challenge the dominant narrative.

This is not to say that the text is simply harboring a fantasy of paths not taken. What it is equally interested in is how storytelling comes to affect accepted realities and histories – what it calls “the power of the word, the image” (Reference LiewLiew 282). In “Days of August,” the alternate world breaks down due to a specter that resembles a “man in white” – a young Lee Kuan Yew. Charlie’s cameo is central to the action, since he is the artist who is writing an alternate history comic within the alternate Singapore. In a dizzying turn of events, the doubly fictional Charlie Chan is writing a comic of Singapore’s actual history with Lee Kuan Yew in power. This Charlie sees this as a mission to assuage the anger of the alternate reality, his comic within a comic is one where “every panel [is] a prayer, a shot in the dark” (Reference LiewLiew 282). The power of the “true” reality eventually triumphs, destroying the alternate Singapore and sending Charlie and Lim back into the past to preindependence Singapore in 1955. Only now, they have an awareness of their doomed futures – Charlie to a life of invisibility and Lim Chin Siong to one of persecution and ignominy. In this final section of the chapter, we return to the realist visual style that began The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which documents preindependence Singapore. It is a careful graphic echo of the earlier part of the text that lends unity to the work but with one crucial alteration: a complex temporal and narrative awareness that suffuses these historical street scenes with greater weight and importance. Instead of the nostalgic reworking of the past that the graphic novel begins with, this historic version of Singapore is invested with a paradoxical sense of both inevitability and possibility.

If artistic confabulation in Singapore means to imagine otherwise in compensation for the amnesia of a state-driven narrative and urban landscape, Liew’s final challenge to the instrumentalization of nostalgia and Singapore’s preindependence past in official propaganda could not be more bittersweet. Lim and Charlie have returned to 1955 on the day of the Hock Lee Bus Incident, which was a conflict between the British colonial authorities and students and unionized workers. Charlie, now newly young again in his own comic, knows that he would “be a fool to go down that road again” (Reference LiewLiew 289). He says this in reference to both himself and Lim Chin Siong, since, as he tells him, “everything you were. Or are working towards … it all fails in the end. The P.A.P. and Lee Kuan Yew will win … and nothing we do now can alter the course of this history” (Reference LiewLiew 286). Surrounded by the sights and sounds of preindependence Singapore, Lim replies with the belief that “these things that we’re fighting for … the welfare of the workers, our freedom, our dignity … whatever the costs they’re still worth the while, are they not?” (Reference LiewLiew 287). Lim’s idealism and conviction are balanced by superimposed text boxes in the voice of the fictional Charlie, who sees the fixed path of Lim’s future even as his young self walks away from Charlie, literally down a street in 1950s Singapore. Forced to relive their choices and lives in “Days of August,” the characters move from the complexities of past conditional temporality, what could have been, to an incomplete present modality. Charlie knows that he will have to contend with the “harsh reality” of trying to make a living as an artist in Singapore but seeks instead in this final moment to dwell on the comics that he has “yet to draw,” a life he has “yet to live,” and of a Singapore “that is yet to be” (Reference LiewLiew 292–93).

“That Would Be Indulging in Counterfactuals”: Metatheatrical Reenactments in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்

A similar desire to relive, reenact, and retell the nation’s narrative through self-reflexive and literary confabulations infuses Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin’s play Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம். The starting premise of the play is that the six characters belong to a reading group called “Raffles Must Fall.” They meet to share their research on anticolonial figures and stories from Singapore’s history, reenacting these little-known narratives and debating their significance to the body politic. The decolonizing pedagogical significance of this theatrical piece cannot be overstated. Indeed, numerous critics have cited its similarity to a “lecture” or “lesson,” with its long passages of direct quotation from historical texts, speeches, and documents (Kuttan; Bakchormeeboy). The play was written in response to the Bicentennial and directly troubles the centrality of the date of Singapore’s colonial founding. It reveals the arbitrary nature of 1819 as a defining moment in the founding of modern Singapore. Instead, through an alternate curriculum and a pedagogy of performative re-enactment, Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் provides a messy and complex lineage between colonial power and the contemporary authoritarian state.

Staged by the theater company W!ld Rice on Singapore’s only thrust stage, Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் begins with a set where its actors are, according to the stage directions, “seated, as if in a classroom” (Reference Alfian and NeoAlfian and Neo, Sc. 1). The trilingual title (Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil) signals the play’s reclamation of non-English forms of storytelling and concepts of decolonization and self-determination. In particular, the Malay word “Merdeka” is fraught with the history of its usage during the Malayan quest for independence from the British, as will be seen in the latter part of my analysis.

In the lively and fraught discussions that ensue amongst the characters about race, language, and history, the play creates a pedagogical space in Singapore that only exists in the theater. It is a space that is free from state-sponsored national education and is one where histories are contested and performed. Each of the characters brings up a particular historical episode or personage that they have been researching, and the group proceed to reenact the events in an exaggerated manner. This is followed by a metatheatrical analysis by the characters of each reenactment and its biases, constructions, imperfections, and lacunae. As the actors reenact scenes from suppressed histories, they begin to question whether decolonization and freedom are truly possible from such a fraught and compromised colonial past.

It is precisely from an attention to the gaps in the “facts,” the so-called “counterfactuals,” that Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் draws its confabulatory power. Its often campy reenactments allow us to hear the songs and speeches of the past and reevaluate visual signifiers such as the Raffles statue and other historical artifacts, and thus gives us an opportunity to experience these visual and aural signs in the flesh. In its curation of alternate moments of Singapore’s precolonial, colonial, and (post)colonial histories, it is doubly self-conscious as it performs history, quoting directly from archival and source materials and highlighting numerous possible interpretations of these accounts. In its eleven scenes, the production eschews a linear timeline, skipping 100 years back to Singapore’s Centenary celebrations, then sixty-five years ahead to S. Rajaratnam’s seminal speech, before moving at breakneck speed to 1812, and so on. The play continues in this vein, bypassing most of the officially emphasized dates and years with aplomb, enacting a new national canon.

Thus, if the state has control over the mainstream historical narrative discourse outside the stage-world, and further within the theater scene through censorship, the play-within-the-play in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் opens up an alternative space in the mode of the self-conscious, sometimes melodramatic historical reenactment. In Singapore’s censorious context, the actors play characters who are acting as other characters and in doing so heighten the sense of theatricality, while questioning the ways in which histories are told and retold. The use of metatheater, a technique that highlights the theatricality of a piece of drama to critique the performance of history and to allow for skepticism at the framing of these narratives, stands in direct contrast to the state’s dominant narratives that brook no dissent. Unlike the state’s account, however, the play, in its historiographic metatheatrical way, remains conscious and suspicious of the national narrative and its literary conventions.

This is theater that is highly aware of the unforgiving regime it exists in. It repeatedly uses the structure of the play-within-the-play as a means to confabulate narratives in the face of suppressed histories, and to do so in a way that foregrounds the idea of history as performance. As Alexander Reference FeldmanFeldman argues:

There is always a power imbalance between those who inhabit the stage-world and those above, beyond and outside it. Within this authoritarian structure, however, the play-within-the-play creates a potentially subversive space, permitting the assertion and enactment of truths, through the mechanism of theatre, that challenge the status quo.

The playful, hyperdramatic nature of the historical reenactments of Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் allow it to literally “play” with history, to interrogate, parody, satirize, and give it a fluidity that is absent in the Singaporean context. It provides a knowing space in which the actors can challenge the orthodox histories that have been promoted and reclaim the suppressed histories that were inconvenient.

The conceit of a history reading group called “Raffles Must Fall” reenacting historical scenes and figures chosen for their affective, familial, political, and personal significance forces the audience to consider an alternate historiographical method. This is a way of narrating the nation that suggests echoes and resonances while resisting the desire for strict structures of cause and effect. It also enlarges Singapore’s erstwhile national borders, giving us important insights into the complexities of kinship in the precolonial Malay Archipelago, Raffles’s invasion and humiliation of the city and court of Yogyakarta, and the close ties between other anticolonial movements and Singaporean activists.

The play acts as well as a form of close reading through its confabulation of some of the key anticolonial texts of the period. Here is where the political and the theatrical are brought together to suggest that both are performances to a certain extent and must be interrogated as such. Toward the end of the performance, it places two famous speeches almost side by side to weigh their words within and without their context. The first is a fiery speech given by the young Lee Kuan Yew on August 31, 1963 at a Malaysia Solidarity Day Mass Rally where he declares Singapore’s allegiance to its union with Malaysia and its independence from the colonial British authorities. The second is a quiet recitation of the Indonesian President Soekarno’s speech from the Bandung Conference of 1955. Lee’s speech recognizes the performativity of his own proclamation for the people of Singapore:

JARED (Lee Kuan Yew):

We have the will to be a nation in our own right. That is the right that we the people of Singapore today proclaim.
Our act follows the traditions of the great anti-colonial revolutions in Asia …
If we live up to our convictions, we will stand the test and judgment of history. On the 16th we go on with Malaysia and we will survive, and prosper and flourish.
Merdeka! (Audience follows)
Merdeka! (Audience follows)
Merdeka! (Audience follows)

Lee’s words attempt to will independent Singapore into being. It is an “act,” theatrical, performative, proclamatory, and political all at once. The moment replayed here is a crucial one that blurs the lines between the aspirational dream and strategic reality of seeking decolonization. It is a moment where the fiction and theater of Singapore as a postcolonial nation begins as an utterance and ends as a speech act as the crowd joins in his call for freedom. But it is also an incredibly fraught moment – for all the freedom that Lee calls for, it is clear that the play Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் exists only because there is so little in terms of narrating a different tale of Singapore. Indeed, Lee had just managed to arrest and detain many of his political rivals without trial just six months earlier in Operation Coldstore.

True to its metatheatrical form, the actors have already set the audience up to understand their complicity in this troubled yet compelling moment. Breaking the fourth wall, the character Siew addresses the audience directly and asks them to rehearse repeating the word “Merdeka” in preparation for their involvement in the play. Collapsing the boundaries again between past and present, Siew asserts:

It is 1963. All of you, all of us, are at the Padang right now. We are attending a Malaysia Solidarity Day Mass Rally. Lee Kuan Yew is delivering a speech at the Padang. He is 39 years old.

By switching deliberately to the present tense and to the first-person plural, Siew implicates and imbricates the audience in the play and in the country’s collective history. As the theatrical performance reenacts Lee’s speech, so does the audience step into the shoes of the audience in the Padang – to the point that their bodies and voices are coopted into the moment, into the utterance of Singapore’s independence. As the reenactment ends, the characters immediately begin analyzing the significance of this 1963 scene to the construction of the Singapore Story. Unlike most postcolonies that celebrate an Independence Day, Liyana points out, Singapore commemorates a National Day (August 9, 1965) that also marks the failure of its merger with Malaysia and its consequent vulnerability. The word that the audience were made to repeat so enthusiastically just a moment before takes on a quality of even greater hollowness.

By contrast, the actors read Soekarno’s Bandung Conference speech “as if it’s not a speech” (Reference Alfian and NeoAlfian and Neo, Sc. 11). Taking his words out of the context of the highly politicized gathering, the actors focus only on the surface meaning of the words which note how “for us, colonialism is not something far and distant. We have known it in all of its ruthlessness. We have seen the immense human wastage it causes, the poverty it causes, and the heritage it leaves behind” (Reference Alfian and NeoAlfian and Neo, Sc. 11). The actors take turn to read portions of the speech, producing a polyphony of ordinary citizens who at the end quietly repeat “Merdeka,” a Malay word that means independence or freedom. The stage directions call for the final iteration of the word to be “almost a whisper” (Reference Alfian and NeoAlfian and Neo, Sc. 11). Even as it was a rallying cry at the point of Singapore’s uncoupling from the British Empire, by the end of the text, it takes on a wistful resonance in the face of the postcolonial state’s continued authoritarian ways.

“Past Conditional Temporality”

In the epilogue to his memoir From Third World to First (Reference Lee2000), Lee Kuan Yew reflects on the sweep of history and what he views as Singapore’s improbable existence. To follow Lee’s account, every decision taken by him was one that was completely pragmatic, toward the goal of Singapore’s continued survival. Lee’s story, meant to echo the planned success of the city-state, is of the full triumph of twentieth-century high modernist ideology coupled with authoritarian determination. He locates Singapore’s success as part of the industrial revolution and European colonialism, “their inventions, technology, enterprise … the story of man’s search for new fields to increase his wealth and well-being” (Reference LeeLee 689). He begins his story with the usual recourse to British colonialism and then ties Singapore’s progress to technological advancements and a calculative investment in human capital.

The single exception to this certainty lies in the last pages of his book. Here Lee allows himself a moment of retrospeculation, as he muses, “would I have been a different person if I had remained a lawyer and not gone into politics?” (Reference LeeLee 688). He describes “the swirling currents of political changes” (Reference LeeLee 685) that swept him along and rhetorically asks himself whether he would have continued on the path to Singapore’s founding leader if he had known the tribulations that lay ahead of him. This is a strange use of the past conditional tense in a relentless memoir full of confident and fateful anecdotes that purports to be a guide, a book that tells you “how to build a nation” (Reference Lee3). Indeed, without prior knowledge of what was to come, Lee says that he and his colleagues “pressed on, oblivious of the dangers ahead” (Reference Lee686). Yet the note of uncertainty that Lee strikes here at the end, his musing about alternate paths that might have lain in front of him, crucially stops short of the alternate histories and futures that Singapore might have had.

These suppressed histories are the starting point of the literary texts that I have read in this chapter, what Lisa Lowe calls “the past conditional temporality of the ‘what could have been’” (Reference LoweLowe 40). For the most part, Lee’s worldview had no time or space for what Lowe sees as the essential power of this temporality. He was only really interested in condemning “what could have been” as potential failure without the strict governance of the ruling party. In Lowe’s view, however, the past conditional temporality allows “a different kind of thinking, a space of productive attention to the scene of loss, a thinking with twofold attention that seeks to encompass at once the positive objects and methods of history and social science, and also the matters absent, entangled, and unavailable by its methods” (Reference LoweLowe 40–41). Unlike the myriad catastrophic endings for Singapore that Lee often holds up as warnings, Lowe emphasizes the critical openness of this temporal mode and its important representation in literary fictions. Indeed, she writes, we must turn to what could have been “in order to reckon with the violence of affirmation and forgetting, in order to recognize that this particular violence continues to be reproduced in liberal humanist institutions, discourses, and practices today” (Lowe 41). In other words, “what could have been” is singularly crucial for examining the truths and paths not taken that underpin our current moment, since understanding them is the key to shaping what might be to come and preventing the inexorable drift of colonial legacies.

Both Liew’s graphic novel and Alfian and Neo’s play function as consciously decolonial pedagogies arising within a state where postcolonial national narratives are tightly restricted. Where the state seeks an orderly, completist narrative in five conventional acts with carefully managed affect, artistic practitioners such as Liew, Alfian, and Neo seek the confabulated, unfinished, and counterfactual. Alfian, Faris Joraimi, and Sai Siew Min write in the introduction to Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History that a “Merdeka history” is one that “not only untangles us from colonial narratives” but is also an approach to understanding Singapore’s history through an “emancipatory” approach that involves “empowering the plural, the non-elite and the oblique” (Reference Alfian, Joraimi, Sai, Alfian, Joraimi and Sai15). In the face of a controlled and controlling state pedagogy, it offers artistic and theatrical spaces for collective learning, contemplation, lacunae, and possibility. It demands of its students a commitment to uncertainty and ambivalence.

Chapter 9 Marxism, Postcolonialism, and the Decolonization of Literary Studies

Stefan Helgesson

In the June 1949 issue of Nouvelle Critique, a Paris-based journal promoting “militant Marxism,” the Senegalese-French intellectual Gabriel Reference D’Arboussierd’Arboussier launched a furious attack on negritude. His casus belli was the recently published Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, a landmark volume of francophone poetry by Black writers edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor and prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Reference D’ArboussierD’Arboussier’s main target was in fact Sartre’s preface, “Black Orpheus,” which soon would become the single most influential account of negritude. Despite Sartre’s use of a Marxist vocabulary, Reference D’Arboussierd’Arboussier took him to task for mystifying negritude as an “antiracist racism” (Reference SartreSartre xl).1 By recoding the epiphenomenon of race as a metaphysical category that would underwrite an emancipatory humanism, Sartre was seen here as obfuscating the material particularities of imperialism. Without denying that race could be an aspect of oppression, Reference D’Arboussierd’Arboussier questioned the assumption of a unified black identity. What exists, he said, “are different groups [peuples] … who are dominated and exploited not by another race, but by other groups, or, to be precise, by the ruling classes of other groups” (Reference D’Arboussierd’Arboussier 39).2

With remarkable precision, this polemic from 1949 puts the spotlight on the tight yet troubled relationship between Marxism and decolonization within the ambit of literature. D’Arboussier’s claims on behalf of an historical materialism that subsumes “race” under “class” have been repeated with variations through the decades. And so have the counterclaims that the colonial predicament undercuts central Marxist tenets. Frantz Fanon’s words in The Wretched of the Earth that in the colonial context “what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging or not belonging to a given race, a given species” (Reference Fanon30–31) continue to resonate as a challenge to doctrinaire Marxism, with its privileging of political economy over questions of race.

What needs to be noted from the outset is that Marxists can credibly lay claim to being the original decolonialists, at least from a Western epistemic horizon. Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg offered thorough critiques of imperialism as a stage of capitalism, and in the colonial experience of the early twentieth century – as registered by, among others, Aimé Césaire, Doris Reference LessingLessing, and C. L. R. James – Marxism was the only established branch of political theory and practice that steadfastly rejected colonialism and racism. With reference to James, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright, Cedric Robinson notes that Marxism was their “first encompassing and conscious experience of organized opposition to racism, exploitation, and domination” (Reference Robinson5). In Reference LessingLessing’s case, a novel such as A Ripple from the Storm shows how her protagonist Martha Quest’s only reprieve from the colonial claustrophobia of 1940s South Rhodesia was to be found in Marxism – Martha’s (and Reference LessingLessing’s) later rejection of communism notwithstanding. As we follow the ups and downs of Martha’s communist faction in Salisbury – with its one African member, Elias Phiri – the anticolonial inflection of Marxism becomes clear. It is largely an intellectual exercise, buoyed by an almost religious faith in the imminence of world revolution and fueled by reading. As Anton, the leading figure in the group says: “If we are to be serious, we must study. We must study hard” (Reference LessingLessing 67).

Although one might imagine that a historical-materialist politics always privileges “factory floor” mobilization, the example of Lessing shows how literature – and the culture of letters more broadly – has been of central importance to the anticolonial history of Marxism. Indeed, in the era after the World War II many (or even most) of the leading public intellectuals – in a wide range of settings – have been Marxists of one kind or another. Besides names already mentioned, one could add Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, South Africans such as Alex la Guma and Ruth First, the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz, the Swedish writers Sara Lidman and Jan Myrdal, and so on.

And yet the relationship between Marxism and anticolonialism or postcolonialism has not been straightforward. D’Arboussier’s attack can be read as a template for subsequent battles between competing schools of thought, especially on the cultural arena. With regard to the decolonization of reading, it goes without saying that Anton Hesse’s admonition in Lessing’s novel to “study hard” referred to a European and Western archive of knowledge. As this chapter will show, there have since then been clusters of debates in different parts of the world whose common denominator has been disagreements over the extent to which Marxist analysis should be privileged epistemologically and whether it can be combined with other, often culturally embedded, explanatory frameworks. When pushed to the limit, the stakes of these debates are exceptionally high: they concern nothing less than what counts as reality. Karl Marx, after all, was a philosopher with the highest ambitions. His sprawling, voluminous writings were not merely an exercise in economic theory but intended to provide an all-encompassing philosophical framework that could analyze, explain, and even change the nature of human reality. Famously, he adopted the dialectical method of Georg Friedrich Hegel, but set Hegel “on his feet” by viewing material conditions, and not the so-called Spirit (das Geist), as the foundational element of history and being. Materialism itself, then, as a mode of analysis, springs forth dialectically as a negation of Hegelian idealism. This is where we can locate the beginnings of many later rifts between Marxism and other schools of philosophy – including postcolonial and decolonial theory.

After exploring how Marxism fared in two contexts of decolonization, this chapter will focus briefly on one recent literary mode of Marxist analysis with far-reaching implications for our discussion: the Warwick Research Collective’s (WReC) notion of “world-literature” with a hyphen. How does their take on “combined and uneven development” square with the current push for decolonization? What are the pedagogical implications of juxtaposing, as WReC does, literatures from discrete spaces and traditions under the umbrella of materialist theory? Taking its cue from those questions, the conclusion contrasts WReC with some of Walter Mignolo’s claims on behalf of “decoloniality” to illustrate the sharp difference between their presuppositions. Rather than falsely trying to harmonize theoretical paradigms, this chapter will propose that the specific contribution of Marxism to contemporary decolonization might be – as d’Arboussier already suggested – to question tendencies to reify concepts such as “race,” “culture,” or the “West” as metaphysical categories. That contribution, in turn, is best received on the understanding that there are experiential dimensions relating to aesthetics, language, race, gender, sexuality, or indeed religion that the Marxist framework is ill equipped to account for in a nonreductive fashion. Ultimately, I argue that the dialectical method is the enduring lesson of Marxism – a method that may, by turns, bracket and then reintroduce the Marxist optic in the unending labor of making sense of the world.

Two different historical developments are illustrative of the depth and complexity of the matters I sketch out above. One is the parallel emergence in South Africa, in the 1970s, of Black Consciousness and a materialist school of historiography. The other is the more famous formation of the Subaltern Studies Group (SSG) of Indian historians, also beginning in the late 1970s. Both cases need to be approached in a highly context-sensitive manner.

In the 1960s, South Africa reached the nadir of the oppressive legal and economic system known as apartheid. Following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, virtually all political opposition had been silenced. Organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) had been banned, their leaders had been persecuted and imprisoned, rigorous censorship laws had been imposed, and much of the country’s intelligentsia had gone into exile. A compelling portrayal of the period’s political atmosphere can be found in Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Late Bourgeois World (1966), which conveys a sense of a crippling stasis that could not last. Nor did it. The budding generation of both Black and White intellectuals and scholars who came of age around 1970 took it upon themselves to craft a renewed critical analysis of South African society. The role Marxism played in this process is intriguing and not entirely predictable. It is nevertheless clear that just how these young intellectuals engaged their task was predicated on their racial positioning.

With Steve Biko and Barney Pityana as leading figures, what became known as Black Consciousness (BC) started not as a political movement, but as a profoundly existential and even theological exercise in reconstructing a sense of self. Famously, BC first entered the limelight in 1969 when the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) broke off from the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). SASO was an all-Black student group who refused in this way to continue under what they saw as White tutelage. Instead, the guiding principle of BC was for the oppressed to take responsibility for their own liberation – and this entailed not least an internalized labor of affirming one’s dignity and worth. The analysis undergirding such a project was that the strongest instrument of oppression was the minds of the oppressed.

The subsequent successes of BC and its merging with the objectives of a broader antiapartheid movement are well known. (As is the apartheid state’s obscene confirmation of its significance in the heinous murder of Steve Biko in 1977.) The interesting point here is that BC created a dilemma for oppositional White intellectuals in South Africa at the time. When the BC activists refused on principle – if not always in practice – to collaborate with Whites, a certain category of White dissidents lost their political footing. If the “liberal” analysis had been that the pathology of apartheid could be resisted through a programmatically colorblind approach that promoted the cause of representative democracy, BC rejected colorblindness and challenged “the legitimacy of oppositional politics by whites” (Reference AllyAlly 79). Its main target was precisely the White liberals in South Africa who were seen as hypocritically accepting the racial hierarchy, but the charge of irrelevance was keenly felt also by more radical Whites.

It was for this reason, then, that Marxism presented an alternative to many young White writers and academics at the time, not least through the History Workshop at Witwatersrand University that started running in 1977. With recourse to the work of the “New Left” in Britain, the Frankfurt school, and the 1968 Paris philosophers, a thoroughly revised analysis of apartheid emerged. As Ally explains, “Marxism refuted the liberal claim that industrial capitalism would erode the apartheid system in South Africa, by arguing that race was only an ideological justification for the class project of apartheid” (Reference Ally74). No longer seen as an atavistic aberration, apartheid was theorized as a particular mode of “racial capitalism” and “internal colonialism” in which the rigorous policy of segregation ensured the consent of the White working class, who benefited hugely from the system. In this way, White academics put a theoretical spin to the problem of race that moved beyond the immediate problem of how groups and individuals were identified or identified themselves.

There is in hindsight a striking complementarity to BC and Marxist revisionism in 1970s South Africa. If BC focused on the subjectivity of the oppressed, the Marxists privileged an “objective,” materialist account of society. But inversely, BC’s definition of Blackness, as it evolved in Biko’s thinking, became increasingly compatible with the Marxist analysis. In BC circles, “Black” eventually became an inclusive category, covering all those groups systemically excluded and divided by apartheid laws. “Coloureds” and “Indians,” who had different legal status, could therefore also claim Blackness, understood as a distinctly political identity constructed by the apartheid system. More than that, Reference MagazinerMagaziner even argues that Biko’s take on race was closer to Reference SartreSartre’s dialectical understanding in “Black Orpheus” than to Frantz Fanon’s ontological position in Black Skin, White Masks. “Black selfhood,” as Reference MagazinerMagaziner writes, was seen as “contingent, topical, and limited” and could in principle yield to a nonracial “true humanity” under another political order (Reference MagazinerMagaziner 44). In this way, BC’s subjective focus led ultimately to a confrontation with the material conditions underpinning South African apartheid.

There are two distinctly literary interventions that illustrate this complementarity of BC and Marxism in South Africa: Mike Kirkwood’s early essay “The Colonizer: A Critique of the English South African Culture Theory,” first delivered at a poetry conference in 1974, and Njabulo Ndebele’s influential collection of essays Rediscovery of the Ordinary, published in 1991 but written over a number of years in the 1980s. Kirkwood’s sharp materialist analysis of a cultural “Anglo” identity was presented in a spirit of “White consciousness,” which aimed at an appraisal of the deep entanglement of race and power in South Africa. “The racial oligarchy,” Kirkwood insisted, was “not the creation of the Afrikaner alone. Our mining interests and our industries created the system of cheap contractual and migrant labour, and our White working class demanded, and got, a privileged stake in the maintenance of a prosperity dependent on that labour” (Reference Kirkwood, Wilhelm and Polley108). In its undermining of sentimental self-conceptions, this could be read as a mirror image of Njabulo Ndebele’s critique, which from a Black perspective aimed at cultivating a poetics of deep social analysis. It was only through “an honest rendering of the subjective experience,” Ndebele argued (Rediscovery Reference Kirkwood, Wilhelm and Polley53), that writers could move beyond a focus on the surface effects of racial oppression. In this way, by engaging the full register of experience and the “dialectic between the personal and public,” literature could “provide an occasion within which vistas of inner capacity are opened up” (Rediscovery Reference Kirkwood, Wilhelm and Polley55, 56). The wording is reminiscent of the BC movement, from which Ndebele had emerged in the 1970s, yet its compatibility with, for example, the Marxist realism of a critic such as Georg Lukács should be evident.

The South African example, which of course does not end with the 1980s, is one instance where theory and praxis converge dynamically, leading to a significantly renewed understanding of society and, by extension, to a “decolonization” of literary practice – although that particular word was not used in South Africa at the time. My other example, the SSG in India, is a more strictly academic development. In addition, it relates primarily to the discipline of history rather than literature. Its importance is such, however, that it has been regarded by some as the main Global South context where Marxism was (supposedly) displaced by a more diffuse theoretical agenda that attempted to account for the historical conditions prevailing in South Asia. With the historian Ranajit Guha as its early leading figure, “subaltern studies” became known when the book series by that name started publishing in 1982. Drawing on the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s use of the word “subaltern” to identify diverse subordinate groups, the intention here was to excavate histories of political contestation in India from “below,” that is, the histories that had been silenced and suppressed in the dominant narrative of India’s transition to national independence.

With the participation of well-placed Indian scholars in the Western academy – such as Gayatri Chakravorty Reference SpivakSpivak, Dipesh Reference ChakrabartyChakrabarty, and indeed Guha himself – subaltern studies rapidly gained a high global profile at precisely the moment when poststructuralism reached its peak in the 1980s. Reference SpivakSpivak’s exceptionally influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” first presented at a conference in Illinois in 1983 (but published in its final version as late as Reference Spivak1999), offered perhaps the most consequential critical account of subaltern studies. By way of dense readings of Foucault, Deleuze, Marx, and the British colonial prohibition of Sati, or widow burning, Reference SpivakSpivak focused on the equivocations of “speaking for” the subaltern. Even within the most radical Western iterations (and critiques) of Enlightenment thinking, Reference SpivakSpivak concluded, the subaltern could never speak as a subaltern. She derided Deleuze’s invocation of “the workers’ struggle” as “incapable of dealing with global capitalism” (Reference SpivakSpivak 250; emphasis in the original). Instead of assuming that there could be what she called “undivided subjectivity” (248) in such struggles, subaltern subjectivity would remain an “irretrievably heterogeneous” (270) cipher even as it was transposed, through an act of epistemic violence, to the type of speaking position that Enlightenment discourse acknowledged. In other words, the radical historians’ wish to vindicate the rights-bearing citizen dwelling on the margins of society was itself an exercise of power.

As we can see, Spivak’s argument was as critical of Foucault’s and Deleuze’s Eurocentrism as it was of the presuppositions of Guha’s project. Moreover, it proceeded through a careful reading of Marx and insisted on the centrality of capital as an analytical concept. Indeed, the very theme of the 1983 conference was nothing less than “Marxism and the interpretation of culture” (Reference Nelson and GrossbergNelson and Grossberg). Even so, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is justly known as a pivotal moment in the formation of “postcolonial theory,” a label that normally refers to poststructuralist postcolonial theory. Spivak had already contributed an earlier piece to subaltern studies in a similar vein, but it was here – on the back of Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978 – that a significantly different, largely non-Marxist, approach to colonialism and imperialism gathered strength.

One of the most thorough and succinct statements of this theoretical difference is found in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s widely cited Provincializing Europe. In the second chapter, Chakrabarty offers a careful reading of Marx’s conception of history in Capital. Rather than subsume history wholesale under the history of capital, Marx suggested in fact that history was split between a history that led to the formation of capital, and a history that did not belong to capital’s “own life-process” (quoted in Reference ChakrabartyChakrabarty 63). For pedagogical reasons, Chakrabarty dubbed these two “histories” History 1 and History 2. His philosophical account is detailed and too extensive to summarize here, yet the central point is clear: the history of capital, and hence of modernity, isn’t all there is to history. But it would be wrong, Chakrabarty writes, to think of History 2 “as necessarily precapitalist or feudal, or even inherently incompatible with capital. If that were the case, there would be no way humans could be at home – dwell – in the rule of capital, no room for enjoyment, no play of desires, no seduction of the commodity” (Reference Chakrabarty67).

What we see in Chakrabarty’s formulation is a more theoretical variant of the previously discussed subject–object tension between Black Consciousness and South African Marxism. Again, the subjective dimension, or what Chakrabarty with phenomenological vocabulary calls “life-worlds,” is juxtaposed with the objectivist and totalizing aspects of Marxist analysis. This tendency is evident already in Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India – arguably the foundational text of subaltern studies – which places strong emphasis on the study of “negative class consciousness” (Reference GuhaGuha 20). An important difference indicated in this phrase, however, is that subaltern studies tended to downplay race. It is not entirely absent, but class, caste, and ethnicity are more prominent categories. One should also observe that the ambitions of a work such as Provincializing Europe were far grander than anything to have come out of South Africa at the time. In his critique of what he called “historicism” (best understood as the ideology of progress), Chakrabarty implicated all of the formerly colonized world. To the extent that Europe was seen as offering a universally valid template for a transition to modernity, this relegated societies in the Global South to a status of “lack,” or incompleteness. On a discursive, epistemological level, Chakrabarty was arguing, the historical and political analysis of a country such as India remained straitjacketed by the notion of “a certain ‘Europe’ as the primary habitus of the modern” (Reference Chakrabarty43). Hence his project to “provincialize” Europe and develop alternative conceptions of modernity.

The turn in subaltern studies toward incommensurability and multiple modernities failed to convince dedicated Marxists. There is in fact an entire genealogy of materialist criticism that has shadowed the poststructuralist tendency in postcolonialism from the word go, with notable interventions such as Benita Parry’s numerous critiques beginning in the 1980s (“Problems”; “Signs”; “Reference ParryThe Postcolonial”), Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory, Neil Lazarus’s two books Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World and The Postcolonial Unconscious, and, somewhat controversially, Reference LazarusVivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (reviewed negatively by Lazarus, one might note, see “Reference LazarusVivek Chibber”). The volume Marxism, Modernity, Postcolonial Studies edited by Crystal Bartolovich and Lazarus is perhaps the most productive engagement between the two fields on record, with the intention to further a distinctly “Marxist postcolonial studies” (Reference LazarusBartolovich and Lazarus 1; emphasis in the original). More recently, a highly consequential literary result of the Marxist critique of postcolonialism is to be found in the WReC’s Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature. With Parry and Lazarus as two of the seven listed authors of the book (the collective has expanded since then, but Parry passed away in 2020), the link to the long sequence of debates spurred by “postcolonial theory” is clear.

The underlying premise of Combined and Uneven Development is that literature in the modern era needs to be theorized not in relation to colonialism, which is a secondary phenomenon, but in relation to the global rule of capital. The forceful formula of the main title is derived from Leon Trotsky’s analysis of Russia’s supposedly anomalous revolutionary conditions when compared to western Europe. Being in the early twentieth century largely a nation of peasants, Russia was an unlikely candidate for revolution, at least if one considered the implications of Marx’s Capital, which rather indicated that the most thoroughly capitalist and industrialized societies (such as Britain) would be the first to undergo revolution. Instead of assuming, however, that capitalism imposed itself on the world uniformly and comprehensively, Trotsky recognized that the old and the new coexisted. Peasants would be “thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow,” leading to an “amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms” (quoted in WReC 11). In the lineage of Marxist literary theory, this conception of differentiated social time has then been further developed by Fredric Reference JamesonJameson (building on Ernst Bloch) in terms of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Reference JamesonJameson 307).

The attraction of such a perspective to scholars wishing to devise a globally applicable method of reading should be obvious. It allows them to have their cake and eat it too – both History 1 and History 2, to use Chakrabarty’s terms, but with clear precedence given to History 1, or the history of capital. Or rather, they see everything as being absorbed into History 1. Rather than move toward a pluralized conception of modernity, as does Chakrabarty, WReC insists on understanding modernity as a singular, complex phenomenon: “Modernity is to be understood as governed always – that is to say, definitionally – by unevenness” (12). It is from such an understanding of an all-encompassing but endlessly differentiated and unbalanced world-system that WReC can take the next step to theorizing what they call “world-literature” (with a hyphen), understood precisely as the literature of the world-system of capitalism. Their assumption is that literature can be read as a “registration” of the world-system, and that the “effectivity” of this system “will necessarily be discernible in any modern literary work” (WReC 20).

A reflection one might make here is that WReC (as they explain on pages 28–48) ultimately is attempting to supplant the colonizer/colonized or West/rest binary that governs the paradigm of postcolonial studies. This is not because they deny colonial power relations – on the contrary – but because they see this as simply one form of the dominance of capital. There are some interesting methodological advantages to this view. One is, as Combined and Uneven Development demonstrates, that writers as diverse as Tayeb Salih, Halldór Laxness, and Victor Pelevin can be juxtaposed unapologetically within a comparative framework that looks at “discrepant literary subunits and social formations of the world-system” (WReC 68). Another is that in the contemporary capitalist order, where countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have become key players, the explanatory value of a world-system analysis is clearly superior to the more restricted colonizer/colonized optic. A third is that the peripheries of wealthy societies (such as rural Louisiana) can be compared meaningfully to the peripheries of the Global South.

The challenge, of course, is to make this work as a literary methodology. It is one thing to provide a broad theory of capitalism as an economic system, and quite another to connect it to practices of reading – which has been a perennial challenge for Marxist literary critics. For some empirically minded scholars, systemic postulates such as those proposed by WReC have the effect of effacing the uncontainable heterogeneity of the actual textual material at hand. In a cowritten article, Karima Laachir, Sara Marzagora, and Francesca Orsini bluntly state that “deterministic models like the Warwick Research Collective’s or Moretti’s use frameworks derived from the social sciences like world system theory to explain literary phenomena, including stylistic choices, in a way that becomes flat and reductionist” (Reference Laachir, Marzagora and Orsini292). Not unlike Reference SpivakSpivak’s “irretrievably heterogeneous” subaltern, we seem to be faced once again with a methodological aporia: for all its flexibility, the optic of combined and uneven development hardwires aesthetic production to the economic model of capitalism. This premise works to the extent that one believes in it, but there is a point beyond which the assumption of causality between capital and literature may seem to have explanatory value, yet without being able to ground itself in anything outside of itself. If we revisit the WReC quotation above about literary “registration,” this happens “necessarily” because “the world-system exists unforgoably as the matrix within which all modern literature takes shape and comes into being” (20). This is circular reasoning, pure and simple. Textual analysis proves what is already assumed by the theory, and whatever does not fit – such as the deep time of literary traditions – is suppressed.

This should not be taken as a blanket rejection of this mode of reading – it is just an indication of its perils and limitations. With, say, the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz’s magnificent work on the nineteenth-century novelist Machado de Assis, we encounter a “decolonizing” Marxist interpretation at its level best, and it is for a good reason that WReC identifies Schwarz as a key inspiration. This, however, is scholarship of the most demanding kind, where Schwarz mined the Brazilian archives for years to arrive at a wholly original and unexpected understanding of the novelist’s ironic style. It is, in other words, not the kind of work that lends itself to easy polemical points but is an outcome of engaging with the full complexity and internal contradictions of a particular Brazilian and European cultural legacy.

On a slightly different tack, WReC could also be accused of privileging just one line of capitalist history – the one we normally think of as Western – whereas current world-system analyses tend to emphasize the plural origins of capitalism itself. Janet Abu-Lughod and Kenneth Pomeranz belong to the forerunners in this line of debate. In their more recent work on capitalisms in the plural, Kaveh Yazdani and Dilip Menon discuss the complexity of tracing multiple economic and historical trajectories of what might credibly be called “capitalism” – without turning the term into an abstract historical constant. They not only point out that “political economy in Western Europe cannot be disentangled from developments in and encounters with Asia and Asians” (Yazdani and Menon 8) but also that Ibn Khaldun already in the fourteenth century developed “a labour theory of surplus production” (9). The former point is entirely compatible with WReC’s global vistas, but the latter definitely challenges their narrow historical timeframe.

There is of course yet another branch of contemporary critical theory that apparently undercuts much of WReC’s brand of Marxism, even as it nominally adheres to some version of Marxism. I am thinking of the so-called “decolonial” variety of theory with its main grounding in Latin America. If by decoloniality we mean its most encompassing formulations by Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Maria Lugones, and other Latin American thinkers, then Marxism is embraced but also absorbed into a theory of the “coloniality of power” (Reference QuijanoQuijano) – a formulation which already tips the balance toward a more Foucauldian mode of analysis and is also, arguably, more flexible than the metropole–colony model of mainly anglophone postcolonialism.

Sociologically, decoloniality resembles the other regional groupings of scholars discussed in this chapter, the historical materialists in South Africa and the SSG, insofar as it emerges from a distinct regional context – Latin America – but has achieved a global presence, thanks not least to scholars placed at US universities (such as Mignolo and Lugones). Its theoretical claims are less easy to pinpoint, although there clearly is some overlap with tendencies in the other two groupings. A difficulty with decoloniality, however, is that it tends to place a tremendous rhetorical premium on a few, totalizing concepts – notably the triad modernity/coloniality/decoloniality and the colonial matrix of power (CMP) – while at the same time, again on a rhetorical level, downplaying the importance of conceptual thinking and stressing the unfathomable “pluriversality” of decolonial praxis.

It is highly instructive in this regard to juxtapose WReC and the account Walter Mignolo gives of decolonial theory in On Decoloniality (cowritten with Catherine Walsh). If WReC is entirely committed to Marxist world-system theory and the ways in which literature can “articulate powerful critiques of actually existing reality” (WReC 83; emphasis added), Mignolo turns this assumption on its head. What matters, he writes, “is not economics, or politics, or history, but knowledge” (Reference Mignolo and WalshMignolo and Walsh 135). From a decolonial perspective, “it is epistemology that institutes ontology, that prescribes the ontology of the world” (Reference Mignolo and Walsh147). It is not that Mignolo is anti-Marx. On the contrary, he sees him as a leading figure among the “internal critiques” of Western thought (Reference Mignolo and Walsh3), yet the claim that no reality exists outside of its discursive articulation is – strictly speaking – incompatible with Marxist materialism.

Once again, it would seem that decoloniality rehearses the subject–object antinomy I have been tracing throughout this chapter, albeit with a vocabulary of its own. The lesson I draw from the archives of Marxist studies and decolonization is however not to rigidly choose sides, but to consider the antinomy dialectically. Any attempt to articulate the “actually existing reality” of our material existence must inevitably confront the limitations of its own language and methods of investigation. There are, so to speak, turtles all the way down, and knowledge becomes that Nietzschean abyss that stares back at the knower. Yet, conversely, the struggles motivating the full range of “decolonizing” practices and discourses today, even as they find anchorage in other languages and conceptions of social being (among Andean peasants, say), will just as inevitably have to reckon with the material deprivations (as well as affordances) produced by the long and always-localized histories of contemporary political economy. On such an understanding, it is the flexibility of the dialectical method itself, rather than any specific Marxist doctrine, that holds the greatest promise for decolonial modes of reading.

In closing, I will exemplify this open-ended methodological stance by turning to the aforementioned Njabulo Ndebele’s much-loved short story “The Prophetess.” Focalized through a young boy in a township in apartheid South Africa, it recounts the boy’s encounter with the local prophetess, who is said to possess awe-inspiring magical powers. The boy’s mother, who is ill, has sent him there to ask the prophetess to bless a bottle of water on her behalf. In anticipation, the ritual fills the boy with amazement: “She would then lay her hands on the bottle and pray. And the water would be holy” (Fools Reference Ndebele31). On his way back with the precious water, the boy drops and breaks the bottle. In his anguish and shame, rather than admit what happened, he quickly fills another bottle that he hands over to his mother – who visibly improves as she drinks the water. The boy’s sense of devastation transforms into triumph: “He had healed his mother” (Fools Reference Ndebele52).

In “The Prophetess,” Ndebele strikes a fine balance between an ironic and earnest mode of narration. The ironic reading is constantly latent and even explicitly articulated when the boy overhears a group of commuters debating whether to believe in what was said about the prophetess’s powers. Indeed, the outcome of the story, with the boy getting away with his deception, apparently supports the ironic – and hence secular and knowing – reading: it made no difference whether or not the prophetess blessed the water. In that interpretation, the “objective” antithesis of human bodies and plain water prevail over the “subjective” cultural beliefs entertained by some of the township inhabitants.

But is the boy really deceiving his mother? And who is the woman known as the prophetess? There are the rumors, but then there is also the boy’s encounter with her, which shows us a different person. She speaks to him warmly about his mother. She sings him a song, allegorically prophesying the downfall of White power. “Always listen to new things,” she tells him. “Then try to create too” (Fools Reference Ndebele40). She is in other words a counsellor and a teacher and an artist, not a magician, and her power is only equal to the strength of the communal relations that she helps to maintain. This, of course, is the key to how we may read the redemptive ending, where the boy himself contributes to those communal bonds: “He had healed her” (Fools Reference Ndebele52). The phrase is not a mockery of the boy’s false consciousness, but on the contrary an affirmation of how a locally grounded and internally differentiated set of cultural practices can contribute to making the world new. Out of the story’s subject–object dialectic – which, at a stretch, could also be read as an Africa–West or Black–White dialectic – something unprecedented springs forth, intimating a decolonized future. The subsequent realization that the story’s implied future, in contemporary South Africa, has turned out to be troublingly different to the horizon of struggle and hope in the 1980s hardly detracts from Ndebele’s story. It shows, rather, the unceasing need to provide renewed dialectical accounts of our social worlds as they unfold in time.

Chapter 10 Against Ethnography On Teaching Minority Literature

Jeanne-Marie Jackson

If people who write about African literature were to agree on one thing, it would be the inadequacy – or just flat-out wrongness – of every larger category into which African literature has been subsumed across its entwined academic and publishing histories. This includes even the seemingly basic designation “African,” which, like more obvious offenders such as “postcolonial,” “Third World,” and “global anglophone,” has often been accused of effacing heterogeneity of all kinds in the name of tokenistic inclusion.1 Some of these critiques have been more hard-hitting than others, and the terms of complaint have evolved, broadly speaking, across the past half century or so from advocacy for “Otherness” to frustration with its lingering reinforcement. What all such categorical chafing tends to share is a difficulty positing what African literature is, or at least how it should be presented given the practical constraints of selling books and building university curricula. With the aim of beginning to fill this gap, this chapter suggests that a culturally minimalist approach to teaching African literature in the American university offers one way of furthering a culturally maximalist conception of intellectual decolonization. By teaching African works that wear their cultural locations lightly, that is, in order to foreground their cosmic and/or existential engagements, we may get closer to disinvesting from the persistent and often racist cause of fictional representativeness.

It is important to set a few contextual parameters at the outset, given the broad reach of this volume’s concerns. First, the “we” I refer to here includes scholars and teachers of African literature in American and British universities, as well as others in the Anglosphere where “African” signifies a minority position. While some of my observations will be applicable to academies where that is not the case (parts of South Africa’s, for example), I will leave it to the reader to make those connections. Second, the pedagogical tack I propose here should be taken as one piece in a larger toolkit for decolonizing non-Africa-based students’ African literature curricula; it is not meant to be exclusive of teaching or scholarship that takes texts’ cultural or historical dimensions as their main point of entry. And, finally, I see the politics of the English literature classroom in this setting as being in variable and unfixed relation to politics of a more concrete sort. By this I mean that I do not assume a fluid translation between concepts as they are mobilized for reading and teaching – including signal terms such as “identity” or “liberation” – and concepts as they anchor adjacent social and institutional debates. This distinction bears repeating in the present context because African literature has been so foundationally and explicitly conjoined to the goal of cultural restitution, for better and worse. Indeed, the history of the field can be powerfully narrated as a series of assertions and rejections of African literature’s value as a proxy for “culture,” a back-and-forth from which I hope here to break free.

To do this I will start with a discussion of “representativeness” and its strictures. Then, I turn to a Ghanaian short story collection whose critical reception has been tellingly sparse: Martin Egblewogbe’s Mr. Happy and the Hammer of God & Other Stories (Reference Egblewogbe2012). The text features stories whose Ghanaian origins are identifiable but not definitive; their “Africanness,” while by no means disavowed, is simply taken for granted as they home in on essential experiences of disorientation. A far cry from earlier, more culturally assertive approaches to literary decolonization, this strategy also departs from what has become a common brand of opposition to cultural representativeness that privileges (usually realist) world-building and immersion. Instead, Egblewogbe rebuffs representative readings with his choice of socially dislocative content conveyed by the marginal form of the short story. These are profoundly and existentially self-minoritizing rather than only social-minoritarian works, in the sense that they do not speak for any position that finds commonality through culture or even location. Instead, Egblewogbe’s stories serve as a useful example of cultural transcendence achieved not through individual complexity but through cosmic anonymity, thereby confounding both ethnographic and limitingly counterethnographic pedagogical approaches to African writing.

The Same Not-Single Story

Many of the most-cited figures and venues in the recent African cultural landscape have, with good reason, focused on transforming Africa in the global imaginary from an abstract signifier to a complex set of particulars. Reference AdichieChimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” has reached legendary status, with tens of millions of views on YouTube alone. Adichie, like the cheeky name of the popular African commentary website Africa Is a Country, links Africa’s economic disempowerment in the world to the long-standing flatness of its image in Western literature and media. Their pique is with single Africans and African situations being made to stand in for the continent writ large, often with pernicious implications. “It would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans,” Adichie says. And then, famously, “to insist on [only negative] stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Literary discourse on Africa is united across popular and academic registers by its wariness of an African orientalism of sorts, whereby tropes like “the White savior” and “the starving African” drive genres such as “poverty porn.” Binyavanga Wainaina’s Granta Magazine piece “How to Write about Africa” has driven countless classroom conversations about such cliches since its Reference Wainana2005 publication, satirically goading students to acknowledge that Africa is in fact a complex place.

Such rejections of reductiveness have been intimately linked to a frustration with African literary texts being read for their ethnographic (or really, pseudoethnographic) insights in particular. As the literary scholar and Brittle Paper website founder Ainehi Edoro attests in a Reference Edoro2016 essay for the Guardian, this implicit bias has a long history rooted in the explicit practice of reading African novels as anthropological texts. After summarizing the would-be “scientific” reception of Thomas Mofolo’s novel Chaka around the time of its English publication in 1931, she bemoans the fact that “African fiction is invisible except when it is reflected on a mirror of social ills, cultural themes and political concerns.” This sense of being deaestheticized has been widely echoed by contemporary African writers. Taiye Selasi, the “Afropolitan” novelist partly responsible for the popularization of that term, leveled the charge in the same paper that African writers were evaluated not in terms of craft but rather “assumed to be or accused of writing for the west, producing explanatory ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction.” In this way, the accusation of writing merely to convey a cultural perspective has become as loaded (and as common) as the accusation of reading for one. Suspicion of the term “African writer” is now a critical trope in its own right, surfacing in nearly every discussion of the field. A recent interview with the debut novelist Ayo Tamakloe-Garr is a strong case in point. The first question that the website Flash Fiction Ghana asks him is, “Do you have a conception of who a Ghanaian writer is? Would you accept being categorized as a Ghanaian writer?” Tamakloe-Garr responds that while he does not personally mind the label, he finds it a “limiting” way to imagine himself.2

Some of this reluctance to identify as an African writer is an understandable reaction against decades of not only Western critics’, but also some African writers’ and intellectuals’ postcolonial attachment to African literature’s culturally restitutive value. As Biodun Jeyifo described the field in 1990, the works first institutionalized as “African” in, especially, British and American universities were lauded as “powerful, exemplary texts of nationalist contestation of colonialist myths and distortions of Africa and Africans” (Reference Jeyifo51). He places Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka within a postindependence wave of literary “demythologization” (Reference Jeyifo52), whereby “the writer or critic speaks to, or for, or in the name of the post-independence nation-state, the regional or continental community, the pan-ethnic, racial or cultural agglomeration of homelands and diasporas” (Reference Jeyifo53). Achebe here is on what we might call the softer end of such cultural reassertion; elsewhere, Jeyifo takes issue with the dubious ontologization of culture by early decolonial critics such as Chinweizu, author of books such as Decolonising the African Mind from 1987.3 Regardless of the vigor or exclusivity of any given African writer’s “reassertion or reinvention of traditions which colonialism … had sought to destroy or devalue” (Reference Gugelberger53), cultural representation by default performed a representative role when the field of African literature was in its institutional infancy. The postcolonial African writer was thus faced with what seems like a binary choice between accepting or refusing that role, with Dambudzo Marechera standing as the best-known example of the latter position. His self-styling as the photo negative of the “African writer” as cultural arbiter entails an insistently abject and disarrayed subjectivity, what his most recent biographer Tinashe Mushakavanhu calls alternately his “black heretic,” “dissident,” and “outsider” standing (Reference Mushakavanhu8Reference Mushakavanhu9).

In this way, an interesting tension begins to emerge within the idea of the minority as it pertains to African writing making its way through the world. One version disaggregates “Africa” into its constituent cultural parts, and in theory could achieve a kind of curricular decolonization through the liberal-adjacent means of finding representative writers and/or texts for all of them. Another version (the Marechera one, what Edoro calls the “anarchic” tradition in her blurb for Mushakavanhu’s book) foregrounds the individual writer’s principled refusal of cultural ambassadorship. A decolonized curricular ideal from this vantage point might see Marechera taught alongside other experimental writers from all over. We might think of these alternatives, presented here in exaggerated form, as representative and antirepresentative minoritarianism. The representative path to a more equitable curriculum quickly becomes untenable on a practical level, over and above any criticism of its merits. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, a cofounder of Nigeria’s independent Cassava Press, argues pointedly that her work in helping to build up Nigeria’s literary field will not be done until “The day we can speak of more than ten Nnedi Okorafors (speculative/fantasy fiction), ten Zaynad Alkalis (oft-cited female writer from the north), ten Olumide Popoolas (writing queer humanity), ten Yemisi Aribisalas (food writer and polemical non-fiction), ten Noo Saro-Wiwas (travel writing), and ten Zulu Sofolas (playwright)” (Reference MangMang). By this logic, the unstated goal of more representation is to make representativeness untenable. It is an admirable objective, but even on the single national scale proposed here it quickly exceeds the capacity of a semester-long course, or for that matter of many universities’ whole English curriculum.

There has to be some basis of selection, or African literature risks being squeezed out of the picture as it contends with other minoritized (which is not always to say minority) traditions for space within what are, these days, often-struggling English departments. That underrepresented groups are often implicitly pitted against one another is not a novel or difficult point, but it is worth restating. As Bhakti Shringarpure and Lily Saint demonstrate with their recent survey of African literature professors mainly in the United States and Europe, this often means that writers pushing back against their reduction to a culture or place end up assuming representative roles in their own right. After breaking down the most commonly taught African texts by country and author, they bemoan “the overreliance on a handful of representative canonical writers who are themselves often opposed to having their work deployed in this way,” Adichie chief among them. Often this bolsters an aesthetic premium on realism as it nurtures readerly attachments to psychologically robust individual characters, and by extension, advances an underdeveloped commitment to personal uniqueness as literature’s guiding force.

Aminatta Forna claims, for example, that “writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places.” Selasi goes still further. She counters her sense that Afro-diasporic writing “is subjected to a particular kind of scrutiny; it is forced to play the role of anthropology” by championing Adichie for having “immersed herself fully in the world and the work of her fiction, attending with such care and wisdom to her characters that they cannot possibly be read as representations.” This is an odd line of argument because at its core, realism works precisely along the lines of social representativeness. Virtually every major theorist of realism from Georg Lukács onward has reflected on these mechanics, including the interplay of character and setting to engender an illusion of singularity that distills a social whole.4 And as Yoon Sun Lee notes aptly in a Reference Lee2012 essay for Modern Language Quarterly, “minor” or lesser-taught literatures are often the most deeply marked by the tension between “the standard of truthful representation” and “[defenses of] the autonomy of the artistic work” (Reference Lee416).

The dynamics of asserting and rebuffing African literature’s presumed “Africanness” are, moreover, complicated by the fact that many current debates about literary decolonization take place as a conversation between Western and African locales; most of the writer-theorists mentioned thus far argue against cultural pigeonholing on the basis of their own culturally hybrid biographies. As is so often true in addressing majority–minority dynamics as they evolve across disparate but conversant settings, African literature in the English curriculum finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Slickly packaged versions of cultural fluidity only go so far to issue a substantive challenge to a Euro- and US-centric curriculum, and yet to teach specific writers and texts solely to showcase their minoritization risks reinforcing an unevenly distributed burden of representativeness. It is also difficult to know when decolonization in an American (or other western anglophone) classroom best entails a focus on particular African literary contents, and when it is more a matter of a general effect of disruption or surprise. As the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Branch likewise suggests, “At some UK universities, to simply affirm the existence of African intellectual production against long-standing historical silences, to affirm that the rest of the world has writing and thinkers that should be studied in any curriculum that claims general or global relevance – this can still be a radical idea when students can complete entire classes without reading non-white scholars” (Reference Branch74). As such I often feel in my own university like I am balancing on a seesaw, demanding a larger presence for Africa in our institution’s intellectual life at the same time as I refuse from intellectual wariness to commit to any clear account of what that means.

Riffing on Jeyifo’s term “arrested decolonization,” the overarching challenge in my current position is to keep African literature from getting stuck in the critique of African literature as a category. The heavy weight of past essentialisms means that it is easy to stall out by repeating a series of metadiscursive negations and reassertions. Teaching cultural fluidity to counter cultural cliches invites criticism for overinscribing a certain sort of elite heterogeneity, one that, as many have argued, tends to elevate diasporic narratives of African literature over more emplaced and politically pointed continental versions. By the same token, it is easy to overcorrect this correction by limiting African literature’s decolonizing potential to an overt “decolonial” message. And if African texts are wielded as tools exclusively to decolonize Western curricula in a narrow sense, it seems to me that little has been gained in a broader one. One example of how this tactic falters – and how widely it has, at earlier moments in the discipline – can be found in a 1991 essay from New Literary History, in which Georg M. Gugelberger argues that, “The issue then is not to integrate Third World literary works into the canon but to identify with ‘the wretched of the earth’ and to learn from them – to learn from the Third World writer how to look into what is really going on in the world and why it has been going on and thus to learn about our own limitations” (Reference Gugelberger506). I do not mean to single Gugelberger out but rather to uphold his position in this piece as distillatory of its Third Worldist moment in American English departments, a moment still reeling from furious debates over Fredric Reference JamesonJameson’s 1986 essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.”5 Whereas Jameson moved to read all literature from the so-called Third World as registering “a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism” (Reference Jameson68), Gugelberger allows that not all literature from the Third World is “Third World Literature” in any identifiable sense. In this account, Third World writing is an opt-in genre, or perhaps mode, that exists in the geopolitically designated Third World alongside “the literature we associate with the established [Western] canon” (Reference Gugelberger508). The valorization of the former over the latter – a still-familiar preference for really Third World Third World writing – anticipates what I will call the “Adichie fatigue” strain of our present discourse. It is common, on this front, to hear African and other postcolonial literary scholars agitate for what amounts to decolonizing tepid forms of decolonization.6

Each of the turns outlined thus far has something to offer the Anglo-American African literature classroom as it retires ethnographic reading practices once and for all: there is still value in reinforcing students’ understanding of African complexity and difference, and there is also value in pointing out the limitations of that gesture by introducing more politically forceful material. All the same, these debates can sometimes feel like a dog chasing its own tail. “Difference” undoes cultural essentialism, radicalism takes aim at the implicit liberalism of difference, and heterogeneity contends with solidarity as the guiding principle of African literature and literary pedagogy. To be “against ethnography” in how African literature is framed and discussed thus raises the question of what one can be for that is both distinctive of literary study and still has the power to redress entrenched curricular injustices. How can African writing be part of decolonizing the English literature curriculum without being reduced in yet another way, to the role of decolonial shock troops? What might really feel different, forcing students to question clichés and counterclichés, easy complexity and political hardship alike? I turn now to some carefully nonrepresentative African short stories in search of an answer.

Egblewogbe’s Ghanaian Cosmicism

Critics have not known quite what to do with Martin Egblewogbe’s debut story collection Mr. Happy and the Hammer of God & Other Stories (Reference Egblewogbe2012). An admired presence in the Ghanaian literary community as a cofounder of the Writers Project of Ghana, recognition has nonetheless eluded him in the lucrative ranks of “global” African writers. Mr. Happy was originally self-published and then later reissued by the small press Ayebia Clarke Publishing; Egblewogbe’s second collection, The Waiting, was released in 2020 by flipped eye publishing, both founded by Ghanaians in England. The palpable influence of Egblewogbe’s background in physics (he is a senior lecturer in the subject at the University of Ghana), along with his often-nameless characters and abstract reveries, make his work difficult to place within African literary debates about culture and representation. The stories, in a word, are weird. Synopses of the work all seem to stop just shy of the term – the back cover of Mr. Happy includes “surreal” and “unsettling” – and some readers have expressed outright hostility to its off-kilter tone. Silindiwe Sibanda, for example, in his review of Mr. Happy calls its “literary exploration of the tangential nature of being” a “clumsy and artless” philosophical exercise (Reference Sibanda146).

Egblewogbe’s stories do not develop characters or relationships, and their Ghanaian settings, while sometimes highly specified with street names and the like, are largely incidental to the repeated “action” of communicative failure. So what do they offer, exactly? Sibanda’s criticism hints at a certain existential bluntness that makes it difficult to find a pedagogical angle on them. With the longer context of African literature in mind, however, I want to suggest that such ostensibly “pointless” stories are an undervalued kind of classroom material. Egblewogbe’s work often narrates moments of unresolved frustration that could in theory occur almost anywhere, and whose setting is thus meaningful more for its part in generating atmosphere than as a purveyor of cultural information. And while it would be a mistake to completely overlook African literary influences on his writing, he invites readers to foreground historically (and geographically) remote sources of inspiration. When asked about his favorite writers and those he most relates to, Egblewogbe routinely cites European absurdists.7 “Let’s put it this way,” he acknowledges to Geoff Ryman in Strange Horizons magazine, “Kafka and Beckett have been very strong influences on me. More than I would say any African writer because of the extent of their imaginings.” His attraction to far-flung traditions of profound existential questioning also recalls many descriptions of “weird” writing. As Kate Marshall argues, that genre depicts human disorientation by minimizing agency and, to some degree, subjectivity itself. By favoring “the modalities of indifference, the cosmic, and external or object agencies” (Reference Marshall634), she writes, weirdness foregrounds the inscription of human interiority by an exterior universe that is apathetic at best, hostile at worst.

The second story in Mr. Happy, “Coffee at the Hilltop Café,” is a good case in point. Its first paragraph introduces a cast of characters known only by the pronouns “she” and “I” and the label “the man” before describing two transparent details: the “large glass window” of the titular café and a woman’s laughter rendered as “peals like jewels falling from her lips” (Reference Egblewogbe7). Right from the start, the story emphasizes the unelaborated perception of discrete sense objects over the organic intermingling of character and scene. The reader’s focus is then drawn similarly to what at first seem like a clear and precise set of objects that take up the whole of the narrator’s awareness – “the woman,” a “cup of coffee,” and “the view” (Reference Egblewogbe7) – but about which Egblewogbe in fact reveals nothing distinctive. This procession of vacant details is punctuated by a pair of localized inflections if one knows where to look. First, the narrator notes that the café “has a tradition for excellence” (Reference Egblewogbe7), which we might read as a wry comment on Ghanaian metropolitan achievement culture. Finally, we get a quintessentially but generically Ghanaian description of the businesses occupying the same street as the cafe: a jewelry store, a beauty shop, and a tailor. In a page full of spatial particularization, Egblewogbe grants close to no insight into sociocultural particulars.

Part of this story’s minimalism in situating itself in a culturally “thick” as opposed to spatially immediate sense can be explained by the fact that Egblewogbe has a mainly Ghanaian audience. He likely feels no pressure to “seem African” in a way that will register to a broad transnational readership looking to expand its multicultural bona fides, but nor does he expend effort on resisting Africanity. His market nonrepresentativeness works in concert with, not simply as an explanation for, the cultural nonrepresentativeness of his prose: both his readership and his style take his location as given, using it as a springboard to a geographically transposable sense of not quite apprehending life’s purpose. As “Coffee at the Hilltop Café” continues for two more pages, the narrator grows more and more focused on maintaining existential equilibrium in the face of a minor disturbance to his routine: usually he (or perhaps she) drinks coffee alone, and the presence of the unnamed couple at the cafe threatens this anonymity. To the degree that the story is “about” anything, then, it is the precariousness of atmosphere itself, with even the narrator playing a supporting role. The story charts the restoration of perceptual peace by turning its narratorial gaze to “The whole western horizon … tainted a mellow, mature purple, with the sun, a purple-gold orb, sinking majestically behind the tree-crowned hills” (Reference Egblewogbe8). Brief mention of “an evangelist from another town” (Reference Egblewogbe9) visiting the narrator’s nearby church might again offer some cultural context to students who know how heavy the evangelical Christian presence is in much of Ghana. But it is neither here nor there in terms of the story’s development from a steady existential rhythm, through reckoning with its disruption, and finally toward a state of carefully calibrated sensory repose. “I open my Bible but I do not read,” it concludes. “I close my eyes and listen to the music. It is beautiful” (Reference Egblewogbe9).

Even this brief example conveys Egblewogbe’s interest in narrating the experience of moving intentionally through life when life might go askew at any moment. In the case of “Coffee at the Hilltop Café,” beauty is restored by a focus on universal atmospheric effects: light interacting with shadows, or pavement illuminated by lamps (Reference Egblewogbe9). In other stories, the luster revealed by disturbance to shine beneath the surface of routine is replaced by a grimmer kind of estrangement from habitual observation. In “Pharmaceutical Intervention,” an unwanted pregnancy is depicted but not named as foreboding embryonic development, “a clot steadily thickening, thickening at an astonishing speed” (Reference Egblewogbe11). That story, too, forgoes nuanced representation in favor of cosmic-cum-religious sensation: Egblewogbe renders a medically induced abortion through a dialogue between the patient and “voices crossed over from the other side” (Reference Egblewogbe15), which may or may not be psychological projections. The book’s fourth story, the cryptic and evocative “Down Wind,” begins with a man calling his doctor from a phone booth to describe a vague feeling of pain. It quickly escalates through a series of frantic phone calls with anonymous speakers during which the caller is accused of some unnamed transgression, at the same time as the phone booth starts to stink and an epic storm gathers outside. Communication comes in fits and starts across the unreliable phone line until it finally fails altogether (Reference Egblewogbe28). Again, the story concludes by invoking the unknowable part of life – be it heaven or void – as experienced by the lonely people groping their way through it. “Behind him the telephone booth stood,” we read, “yellow, solitary, dark and deserted: a strange aural terminal to the rest of the world” (Reference Egblewogbe29). It is difficult to have any idea what has happened in “Down Wind,” other than the gathering of tension through panicked, erratic speech and then its eerie release into light.

The stories in Mr. Happy and the Hammer of God are disorienting and rich with a cosmic suggestiveness that goes largely unfulfilled as anything more concrete. Brought into an American literature classroom full of students who are interested mainly in learning about African cultures either for personal or professional reasons (their parents are from Lagos, say, or they plan to spend a summer volunteering abroad), the fact that Egblewogbe’s work is so heavy on atmosphere and so light on ethnographic content is a good thing. It offers something approaching a blank slate for discussion of African writing; teaching such material asks students to build their understanding of that term’s possibilities from the ground up, regardless of what stereotypes or counterstereotypes they may have brought into the room. In this way, cosmic or existential stories such as Egblewogbe’s (or Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s collection The Prophet of Zongo Street, or the South African Henrietta Rose Innes’s Homing, to name just two more examples) estrange on both a metadisciplinary and formally local level. Rather than baptize students into an unrelenting chain of reactivity, nonrepresentative texts ask them to start from a place of terminological suspension. They then face the task, elemental in the best sense, of trying to describe the how of their unsettlement: the rhythm, mood, and instrumentation of its source. Minority literature can be a beginning to many ends, finally permitted to mark its own time.

Chapter 11 Orality, Experiential Learning, and Decolonizing African Literature

Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang

The expression “dead White men” has become hackneyed in decolonial conversations. It is a given that there is a pressing need to diversify academia: this obligation involves questioning, dismantling, and reconstructing canons in their most old-fashioned forms on the one hand, while gravitating toward practices that promote a more equitable redistribution (if not diffusion) of power on the other hand. These actions are required all over the world, not least in Africa, where colonialism was experienced in some of its worst forms. And yet, even in the twenty-first century, the phrase “dead White men” takes on a visually and conceptually poignant pertinence at the Department of English in the University of Ghana, Legon.

Prominent on the walls of this two-floor department are thirty-seven portraits of poets, writers, and playwrights – as well as Queen Elizabeth I (see Figure 11.1). Of this number, only five – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ousmane Sembène, Kofi Reference AnyidohoAnyidoho, and Kofi Awoonor – are of African descent (see Figure 11.2). Perhaps equally striking is the fact that out of the total, Aidoo is the only other woman author apart from Jane Austen. The remaining twenty-nine personalities are British and American White male literary artists, including well-known giants such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Conrad and others such as Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Aldous Huxley, Henry Howard, and Joseph Addison; none of the latter group, among other authors hanging on the walls, has featured in either undergraduate- or graduate-level syllabi or faculty-level research for decades. In other words, this visual greeting to students, staff, and visitors at the department is overwhelmingly by dead and somewhat obscure White men who, what is more, have little bearing on their immediate audience.

Figure 11.1 Portraits of dead White men, Jane Austen, and Queen Elizabeth I at the Department of English, University of Ghana.

Photograph by author

Figure 11.2 Portraits of Ama Ata Aidoo and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at the Department of English, University of Ghana.

Photograph by author

This means that after more than seven decades of existence, a founding department of the oldest university in the first African country south of the Sahara to gain political independence from Western colonialism grapples with a situation that presents a twofold challenge to educators: first, many of those writers being held up as the standard have direct ties to colonial and neocolonial cultures whose presence looms over local/African output.1 Secondly, the prominent presence of these personalities is sharply belied by their remoteness in terms of cultural and academic relevance.2 In addition to the familiar nationally embraced social, economic, and political challenges that are presented by the colonial accident and filter into African universities, it is within this paradoxical context that the department functions.

And even if this situation at Legon is not visualized as dramatically at other African universities, the curricula of English and Literature departments in many institutions across the continent are similarly encumbered by obstacles that demand the addressing of pedagogical structures to decolonial ends. A casual sampling of syllabi in African literature courses from other universities in Ghana as well as universities in Senegal, the Gambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Malawi, and Botswana reveals methods of teaching and textual choices that are steeped in conservative modes and gravitate toward conservative tendencies.3 For example, courses privilege written texts (over oral and digital texts), while the traditional classroom space continues to be idealized as the sole learning environment. A more carefully done formal survey by Bhakti Reference ShringarpureShringarpure corroborated this situation but also found that other African universities, especially in Kenya and Uganda, allow students to “gain a deep knowledge of African literary traditions with emphasis placed on orature and orality.”4 In other words, different universities adopt practices that have varying degrees of success in being decolonial in nature and application.

This chapter is not intended to unduly criticize universities in Africa, which have collectively made impressive strides despite astonishing difficulties. Apart from unacceptably high student–teacher ratios for instance, finance is a big challenge: access to local funding for African universities remains chronically low, while a handful of Africa-based researchers occasionally win grants usually from foreign sources.5 Even worse, political interference occurs in many institutions. In Ghana, for example, there were multiple government-sponsored attacks and attempts to destabilize universities and university systems between 2017 and 2020.6 More specifically to literature, it must not be forgotten that hardly anyone researched into or taught African literature up until the middle of the twentieth century (Reference LindforsLindfors vii). In fact, Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson’s African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, which is the first ever critical anthology to focus exclusively on African literature, came as late as Reference Olaniyan and Quayson2007.7 The progress that has been made despite these challenges can still be extended by suggestions that are informed by my experience gained from teaching an English course at the University of Ghana.

I use ENGL 314: Introduction to African Literature, taught in three different semesters (between 2020 and 2022), to highlight decolonial pedagogical techniques that ultimately tackle two concerns. The first is this most classic of questions that can be traced to the colonial encounter: how does one find a “balance” between the imposition of “untouchable” and “Western” standards in the literary canon and African creative expression in a postcolonial country such as Ghana? Secondly, in an age where the humanities faces various crises, including questions of finance and relevance, how is the significance of literature to aspects of students’ life, including the political, sociocultural, and ethical, to be highlighted by relevant pedagogical strategies? These questions are contextualized within a brief history of the university as well as in the evolution of the department.

Legon: The History of an African University

According to its website, the University of Ghana “was founded as the University College of the Gold Coast by Ordinance on August 11, 1948, for the purpose of providing and promoting university education, learning and research.”8 What is missing from this condensed history is that the university was set up after sustained agitation from different colonized subjects, including farmers and the educated elite, who demanded the establishment of a tertiary institution in the Gold Coast territory. Obviously there existed (and continue to exist) African forms of education (typically called “informal education”) (Reference Adeyemi and AdeyinkaAdeyemi and Adeyinka 425). Still, the establishment of the University of Ghana marked the beginning of Western-style tertiary education in the Gold Coast, which had ended at the secondary-school level prior to these developments. Money from cocoa farmers formed the bulk of funds that were used to set up the University College of the Gold Coast.

The colonial administration modeled this new institution on the University of London, thus giving the institution a British identity from the beginning.9 Francis Agbodeka notes that documents call this association a “special relationship” (Reference Agbodeka18), but for all intents and purposes, the new university was under the tutelage of its British counterpart, which exercised absolute control: the University of London approved courses, had a major hand in recruiting staff through an interuniversities committee in London, and had to approve syllabi and reading lists prepared by faculty at Legon. Additionally, examination questions were sent to the British counterpart for approval, while Legon faculty regularly traveled to London for examiners’ meetings. The university was purely European in idea and practice – explained further by the fact that the first staff recruits were Europeans who were trained in European universities. They brought with them wholesale what they had learnt from Europe, with little to no African input. The curriculum therefore remained exclusively Eurocentric from the beginning.

To the credit of the European staff, there was a coordinated movement to Africanize courses, especially after Ghana gained independence in 1957. Resident faculty, including Polly Hill, Ivor Wilks, and E. F. Collins, started to produce research that was relevant to their immediate environments; they then brought their work to the classroom. Hill, for example, explored the migratory and capitalist practices of cocoa farmers, while Wilks researched the history of the Asante kingdom.10 This Africanization push was supplemented by a decision in 1953 to increase the recruitment of qualified Ghanaians, as the university began a staff development program which involved identifying promising students and awarding them scholarships to pursue graduate studies. Beneficiaries of this policy included Alexander Adum Kwapong (who later became the first Ghanaian vice chancellor of the university), while J. H. Nketia had joined the university as a research fellow in Traditional Music, Folklore, and Festivals in West Africa in 1952. Most of these graduates traveled to universities in the United Kingdom, although a few went to the United States.

While undertaking their graduate studies, this first group of Ghanaian graduates typically wrote dissertations that focused on Western research. However, as their numbers started to increase, newer cohorts, including scholars such as George Benneh, John K. Fynn, L. A. Boadi, Florence Dolphyne, and G. K. Nukunya, invariably produced doctoral theses on African studies topics while abroad.11 They started returning to Legon from the early 1960s and, because they had Africanist backgrounds, establishing African courses was relatively straightforward. Accordingly, through new syllabi and reading lists, disciplines such as Music, History, Anthropology (which increasingly adopted a Sociology character), Linguistics, Geography, Archeology, and Philosophy started to assume identities that moved further away from their exclusively Eurocentric origins. An even stronger effort at Africanization commenced with Nkrumah’s establishment of the Institute of African Studies in 1961, and scholars further Africanized the curriculum at the pretertiary level by writing textbooks on African Studies subjects.12 With these efforts, high-school graduates who entered university had a fairly decent background in terms of formally taught African content.

In the midst of this transformation, English lagged in embracing Africanization, mainly due to the faculty’s lack of belief in the quality of African writers (Reference AnyidohoAnyidoho 9).13 Influenced by his Nigerian colleague Ikide, faculty member K. E. Senanu introduced the department’s first course on African literature in the 1970s, which was open only to English majors in their final year; all other courses remained a spillover from the colonial period.14 Disagreements between Sey and Senanu over introducing new African-centered courses at the department led to the departure of the latter to Kenya in the 1970s. Senanu had earlier played a crucial role in attempting to dismantle conservative structures at the department after spending a sabbatical at the University of Ibadan, which was set up in the same year as Legon. Ibadan at the time was a site for radical decolonial efforts, with scholars such as Biodun Jeyifo spearheading the charge.15 Added to the famous efforts of Ngũgĩ in Kenya (reflected in his seminal essay “On the Abolition of the English Department”) and others across the continent, African scholars had been bringing progressive developments to English departments in Africa. In East Africa, the name “English” was replaced by Literature or its equivalents, signaling an ideological shift. This was not reflected at Legon’s English Department anywhere as intensely.

The Africanization of the Department of English also lagged in terms of research at both faculty and student levels. In an interview, Reference AnyidohoKofi Anyidoho, who was an undergraduate student in the 1970s and a former head of department from 2004 to 2006, recalls being forced to move to the Linguistics department to write a long essay on oral literature because department faculty strongly discouraged his decision to do so at the English Department.16 Needless to say, the change at the department was gradual. Up until the 1970s, there was still a substantial number of British faculty at the department and at the university as a whole.17 However, in the late 1970s, the British government withdrew the British University Grants Committee (UGC) subsidies for lecturers overseas, which had been set up in 1919 and was crucial to them staying.18 This withdrawal led to an exodus of British lecturers from Ghana, clearing the way for more African faculty.19 By the time the university survived the economic crisis that plagued Ghana in the early 1980s, there was a majority African presence in terms of staff, which has remained the case until today.20

Still, as late as 1986, Reference LindforsBernth Lindfors had surveyed 194 courses from thirty universities in fourteen African countries, finding that while the “most radical reorientations” in the curriculum had occurred in Kenyan and Tanzanian universities, the “staunchest conservatism” was the case at the English Departments at the University of Ghana and the neighboring University of Cape Coast, both of which had only affected “minor alterations of the old colonial curriculum” (Reference Lindfors48). The department’s history of being slow to embrace decolonial endeavors has meant that it has taken monumental efforts to chip away at its conservative nature.

Shifts in curriculum development in the 1990s led by such faculty as Reference AnyidohoAnyidoho, Awoonor, Dako, and Mensah helped the English department make significant strides at decolonial efforts. By the turn of the millennium, and under the tenure of Reference AnyidohoAnyidoho as head of department, the first two doctoral dissertations in African oral literature were passed in the department, with an increase in numbers since then.21 In the last two decades, more African-centered courses have been introduced to the department at both undergraduate and graduate levels, including Oral Literature, Ghanaian Literature, Postcolonial Literature, and Literature of the Black Diaspora, all of which expanded the curriculum to decolonial ends. These courses, like most other literature courses at African universities, privilege written text and do not typically require students to go outside the classroom. Grappling with these legacies, I argue the need to do more than just revising the text of the curriculum, by introducing new modes of pedagogical engagement that foreground relevance while utilizing the resources immediately available. In times when African Studies must evolve, it is important especially for African universities to utilize Indigenous forms of knowledge and reconceptualize the environment to benefit students and optimize pedagogical potential.22

Orality and Experiential Learning at Legon

The following section expands upon this proposal to recollect and subsequently reflect on the treatment of the ENGL 314: Introduction to African Literature course at the University of Ghana, taught during the second semesters of the 2019/2020, 2020/21, and 2021/22 academic years. This course is required for all third-year students of English and has been taught in different forms for at least forty years. During the scope of study for this chapter, the class size has ranged from 75 to 110, including foreign students in all iterations apart from the last one (due to a nationwide university strike among faculty that shifted the calendar). The class size is one of the limitations that will be discussed later in the chapter, even though it is important to note here that the different semesters had a similar syllabus. Historically, the course is usually taught neither with recourse to optimal usage of the physical environment nor by harnessing nonwritten texts in a central manner.23 A marked departure from previous offerings of the course thus involved implementing an interplay of oral and experiential learning strategies, away from centering a syllabus around conventional understandings of text and writing that in turn privilege Eurocentric offerings.24

What Karin Barber terms as investigating “the very constitution of the text itself” (Reference Barber67) helped to further understand what a text is. Barber further states “what a text is considered to be, how it is considered to have meaning, varies from one culture to another. We need to ask what kinds of interpretation texts are set up to expect, and how they are considered to enter the lives of those who produce, receive and transmit them” (67). Varied interpretations of text are not intended to create a hierarchy that privileges some interpretations over others; the intention is to place them on a horizontal scale from which to make relevant choices. Additionally, the fact that one culture accepts certain interpretations does not prevent that culture from adopting and accepting alternatives from other cultures. In a globalized world where cultures have always borrowed and lent themselves despite tension and appropriation, cross-cultural exchange allows an instructor to pick and choose from a wide selection. Following from Barber, then, it is important to underline that for this course, text and writing were thus seen as both embodied and geographical due to the relationship that exists in African literature between orality and creative expression.

On all three occasions, the first few class sessions involved helping students unlearn the regular understanding of texts and writing as absolute in Western/colonial terms. The students subsequently imbibed the concept of decentering these meanings to incorporate forms that they had not immediately considered as acceptable texts.25 As Uzoma Esonwanne explains, treating oral discourses as literary devices does not trigger repetition; it rather causes the former to be spoken in a new context that creates a non-pre-discursively new utterance (Reference Esonwanne and Quayson142).26 By deconstructing orality and text, the intention was to put pressure on their elasticity, thereby allowing students to rethink their natural environment as a text that was ripe for intellectual engagement. They were able to then understand their lived experiences in Accra as a series of learning moments.

In a time when African cities are increasingly the focus of mainstream research, it is incumbent upon teachers to utilize their environments for pedagogical purposes.27 The basic logic underpinning this move was that if learning about African literature was taking place at an African university, then it was important to engage with the host African city in productively relevant ways. Accra (and by extension both Ghana and Africa) is written and spoken simultaneously – addressing only the former side of this equation through conventional learning practices leads to an incomplete understanding of the city.

One way of approaching a fuller understanding of the city was to introduce a research assignment that involved investigating the makeup of Accra through oral histories. Oral histories are the major source of both official and unofficial knowledge, and on a continent with a relative dearth in written research, oral information is a crucial source. Again, a significant amount of research on places in Africa is done through Eurocentric framings. For example, foundational texts in African studies are Eurocentric in authorship and origin, as European missionaries, soldiers, administrators, and other scholars wrote about the continent in various disciplines. V. Y. Reference MudimbeMudimbe argues in his seminal The Invention of Africa that “Africa” is a constructed culmination of centuries of discourses and practices – largely starting from the fourteenth century by Europeans and responded to from the nineteenth century by Africans. In their attempts to question this invention, African scholars have not escaped the Eurocentric invention of Africa. Even though African studies aims at reclaiming the voice that was taken away from African subjects, there has been a tendency to maintain the West as the subject of history.28 In contemporary times, Akosua Adomako Ampofo points out how Western scholarly outlets are prized, influencing African researchers to gravitate toward such destinations (Reference Ampofo17). Even though (or maybe because) the students in the ENGL 314 class do not have formally extensive training in research methods, it was important for them to appreciate that oral sources are as legitimate as published articles and monographs.29

Different student groups were to choose suburbs in Accra from a list and were tasked with investigating the history of the origin of the place. They were to accomplish this assignment by identifying and speaking to people who would have knowledge of its history. They were at liberty to complement this research by looking for documented evidence, even though this was to be a secondary strategy. After minimal training – involving introduction and observational skills – the students were to create a set of questions that would serve as a springboard for finding out the needed information. The purpose of this exercise was to let the students realize the consequence of considering people as recognized sources of information. Oral sources of information on the same issue are notorious for differing in terms of accounts; this feature was to help the students to think through authoritative sources while looking out for inconsistencies in competing accounts. In cases where histories of places were readily available – such as Jamestown and Labone – the information obtained was sometimes different from what was documented and available in libraries and archives, again allowing for an understanding of contested sources.30

By approaching and interviewing people about the histories of different places in Accra, the students were again able to define knowledge as embodied in the people they spoke to.31 Often, students would find that older people were walking history libraries who had an admirable understanding of how the place in question had evolved. Additionally, knowledge was circumscribed by specific places in the suburbs they were to investigate. For instance, churches and mosques were usually the places where students found origin stories of the various suburbs. In subsequent discussions, students appreciated the fact that people, articles, and books could be placed on the same scale of credibility on the one hand; on the other hand, different people and different written sources could compete among each other for authenticity and authority. The tendency to not have a single authoritative source allowed for a questioning of what it means to diffuse authority and “truth” in a spectral sense. Learning through this experiential model of quasi-ethnographic research was therefore useful.

It is important to harness the creative and scholarly engagements with these cities through experiential learning to make the classroom space relevant to African students. Universities in Abuja or Abijan, or Khartoum or Kigali, for instance, can adapt this assignment to appreciate the importance of understanding the rapidly changing nature of their cities. Instead of drawing a dichotomy between the classroom and the street (Reference QuaysonQuayson, “Kóbóló Poetics” 428), the classroom becomes the street, and the street is the classroom, as students are constantly alert to finding out how to learn from their physical environment.

Another decolonial strategy involves provoking a sustained critique of conventional teaching modes by displacing agency to students, allowing for the interrogation of assumptions that underpin their lived experiences. This strategy was meant to avoid replicating colonialism in the classroom in the scenario where the instructor wielded undue levels of power. The course facilitator, namely the professor, is in the prime position to exercise judgment in shaping the course and content of research and study. We must also trust students with the ability to be responsible sharers of this power. This point for me was important because anecdotal experiences corroborate research that indicates that students do not feel empowered in the classroom.32 Youth agency has to be amplified on a continent where more than two out of every three Africans south of the Sahara are younger than thirty years of age.33

Thematizing a Class

All three iterations of the course were themed around sound. This was done upon consultations with experienced faculty both in and outside the University of Ghana.34 There was additional theoretical grounding in sound studies, with Jonathan Sterne, Igor Reyner, Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes, and Marleen de Witte particularly helpful.35 As mentioned in the course description of the syllabi, African literature is loud and full of sound: modern African literature such as novels and plays on the one hand, and African digital literature on the other hand, consistently emphasize noise, dialogue, and music. Written African literary texts such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments, Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram83 are full of both sounds and music. And Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman is famous for being structured around various forms of drumming in all parts of the play, even in scenes involving only the White characters. Oral literature is full of singing, dancing, and performance, while the acoustics and beats of contemporary music genres allow sound to permeate through creative expression all across the continent. The course was intended to introduce students to the uniqueness of African literature through a focus on sound in various ways: mythically, textually, politically, socially, culturally, and symbolically. Outside of the surrounding environment of Accra, the choice of conventional text and writing was therefore premised on understanding how to engage with sound centrally, tangentially, and indirectly.

As mentioned above (p. 000), even though the definition of text was elastic, there were still novels, plays, and short stories. Out of the selected texts, about half were authored by women, while there was a healthy mix of canonical authors such as Achebe and Aidoo, relatively newer well-known writers including Adichie and Bulawayo, and amateur writers from websites such as Brittle Paper and Flash Fiction Ghana. Writers came from countries that included Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria, Congo DR, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The intention was for students to not expect a monolithic demographic with its attendant narrow implications for perspective formation and viewpoint shaping. Spreading the author choice around these various parameters was an obvious attempt to cover an appreciable amount, even if it must be immediately admitted that, as with any set of choices, many important aspects would be inevitably left out. It would be unconscionable to many lovers of African literature, for instance, that only three of the top five most-mentioned African writers featured on the syllabus.36

The Pandemic as Opportunity

In the first two times that the course was taught, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the mode of teaching. The pandemic first reached Ghana during the middle of the semester (March 2020), with attendant implications for the mode of delivery and experiential learning. In a country that has not kept up with digital advancements, there was a general difficulty in adapting to online teaching. Subsequent teaching of the course was informed by less face time and more virtual interaction. Considering the high cost of data to the average student and the lack of digital infrastructure in some places, this challenge hampered the pedagogical effectiveness of courses all over the country and continent.

COVID-19 still provided a ripe opportunity for digital technology to be an integral part of the class. There had been plans to invite creative artists to class to interact with students and do performances/readings of their work. Because of a lockdown in Accra and general social-distancing guidelines, students interacted with musicians, poets, and spoken word artists via Zoom calls and Instagram Live sessions. Through networking, I was able to have my students partake in interactive sessions with the hiplife musicians Reggie Rockstone and Kojo Cue, the poet Agyei Adjei Baah, and the spoken word artist Poetra Asantewa, mainly via Instagram (see Figure 11.3). African literature classes will benefit from finding ways of interacting with creative artists who are local to whichever space that the institution is located.

Figure 11.3 Screenshots of Instagram Live sessions with Reggie Rockstone, Kojo Cue, and Poetra Asantewa, respectively, in 2020.

Photograph by author

Creative artists are busy people, and securing their time was not always a success. During the second running of the course, no artist was able to make the time to join the class. This absence was also due to a shortened semester, the circumstances of which are explained in the conclusion of this chapter. For the third iteration, students had the pleasure of talking to the Ghanaian musicians Worlasi and Jupitar (see Figure 11.4), who physically came to class and fielded questions regarding inspiration, theme, character development, and other literary aspects of their songs. The amateur writer Fui Can-Tamakloe also visited the class on all three occasions (see Figure 11.5). His Pidgin-English stories, which appear on online portals, were intended to open the students’ minds to the possibility of seeing Pidgin-English appear in mainstream spaces.37 Listening to practitioners speak about their craft in nonscholarly ways was intended to complement class discussion and remind students of multifaceted engagements with texts.

Figure 11.4 Respective class visits by the Ghanaian musicians Worlasi and Jupitar in 2022.

Screenshot by author

Figure 11.5 Guest appearance from the Pidgin-English writer Fui Can-Tamakloe in 2020.

Screenshot by author

While guest visits by practitioners are by no means a novel mode of pedagogy in African universities, having them interact with students is another way of fulfilling the call by Ato Quayson and Tejumola Olaniyan to ensure that African literary and critical production are not discrete entities but relate in a “supportive and critical, mutually affective intimacy” (Reference Olaniyan and Quayson1). The students on the one hand related up close with them; the creatives on the other hand saw their work through the eyes of their audiences in ways that made them rethink aspects of their work such as thematic and character development.

Conclusion: Limitations and Shortcomings

Apart from the litany of challenges that hamper teaching in a university in a postcolonial country such as Ghana, a new mode of pedagogical engagement that relied on learning on the go while dealing with unforeseen problems like COVID-19 would inevitably yield a series of omissions, mistakes, and limitations. Each iteration of the course had a set of unique and overlapping hurdles to cross: the first time was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic; the second time was limited by a compression of the semester due to logistical challenges that the university faced in trying to catch up after closing down for months – the semester was done exclusively online, with twice the number of classes per week in half the total semester time; the third iteration of the course witnessed a reversion to the regular semester, even though the period was also compressed into ten weeks instead of thirteen, due to the strike and aftereffects of the pandemic. Even after the university eventually manages to return to a regular schedule, the other challenges (class size, finances, etc.) will most likely remain.

In terms of the breadth of syllabus, the truth of the matter is that the beauty and force of African literature is too diverse to be captured in an undergraduate class that allows for ten to twelve weeks of teaching. Different authors, themes, and texts will inevitably be left out, while the intention to foreground student agency by allowing their perspectives to influence class discussion and direction also means that occasionally, lesson plans that intend to cover certain concerns might not always be fully realized. Focusing on the various realizations and utilizations of sound was one window through which to approach the texts; alternative approaches can appropriate place and space, the home, queerness, social relations, power dynamics, and the public sphere, to name a few. In other words, like many thematized classes in different disciplines, African literature courses are open to a multitude of angles from which an instructor can take the class. The choice of theme can inform the text selection, even though, as always, certain texts will always be left out.

There were other limitations. The architectural shortcomings of the classroom venue prevented the adoption of a seating style that redirected attention from the front of the class to an oral-style circular form. This form is proven to deemphasize attention on a sole speaker. Neil ten Kortenaar recalls a time in Canada when a First Nation elder required participants at a workshop to sit in a style that incorporated traditional meeting practices (Reference ten Kortenaar236). According to the elder, thinking and acting differently required change, which would in turn “begin with the way we framed our questions and our discussion” (Reference ten Kortenaar236). The diffusion of power dynamics due to the spatial relations engendered by such arrangements was unfortunately not possible in my class. One way of circumventing this obstacle was for me to move around the classroom and sit at different vantage points during discussion. In other words, instructors must use the tools at our disposal to improvise.

In this light, my suggestion is for African departments to continue the process toward decolonizing the literature curriculum by considering such methods. Institutions across the continent might not be able to compete with counterparts in the Global North in terms of resources and funding, but the key is to use the tools at our disposal to our advantage. In my opinion, the primary advantage is place, as the city in which the class is being held is already African. Place then lends to aspects of culture that engender experiential learning, as students learn by experiencing the environment around them through scholarly engagement, including interviews in this case. In other cases, surveys, case studies, archival research, and other methods of inquiry can enable students to realize firsthand the potential of their environment, causing a rethink of conventional modes of pedagogical engagement.

Arguably, these suggestions will not necessarily result in reaching the point of being fully decolonized or uncolonizable – if either state even exists. Universities are trapped within larger global contexts that are usually beyond their purview. Regardless, incorporating alternative methods of conceptualizing the natural environment and focusing more on iterations of orality are possible ways of making African Studies become more relevant to students, leading to positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

Chapter 12 Vernacular English in the Classroom A New Geopolitics of the English Language

Akshya Saxena

It may be in English, but often it is in an English which is like a howl or a shout, or a machine-gun, or the wind, or a wave. It is also like the blues.

Edward Kamau Braithwaite, History of Voice
Decolonize What? What’s Decolonization?

Soon after enthusiastically agreeing to write this essay, I panicked at the enormity of the task ahead: Decolonizing the English Literary Curriculum. As a scholar of postcolonial studies, I read and write with a commitment to the decolonial possibilities of comparative methodologies. Against the parochialism of a racialized English literature, I work across south–south political geographies and Hindi, English, and Urdu media. Of course, I wanted the opportunity to reimagine the English curriculum.

I talked to colleagues and students about what the decolonization of an English literary curriculum meant to them. A few people expressed cynicism about the institution-speak of decolonizing, some others noted the urgency of decolonial practice. In an email exchange, Bhakti Shringarpure, scholar and series editor of Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas (OR Books) framed decolonial practice in terms of “what we ‘do’ and how we ‘behave,’ ‘interact’ etc. and stage our particular positionalities in everyday life.”1 It quickly became clear that to write about decolonization meant writing about praxis and practice. In terms of literary studies, decolonial practice calls attention to what we teach and how we teach it, as well as what and how we choose to write in our scholarly and public work. This accountability from the daily – often unseen and unsung – work of being in our culturally specific classrooms and the ongoing pursuit of our strongest political beliefs was not something I had always stopped to consider.

Broadly, decolonization refers to the critical appraisal of the hierarchical and racialized logics of Western European cultures and institutions that organize knowledge. Referring to the literal end of colonial rule, Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) wrote that decolonization is necessarily violent. To decolonize is to unsettle. Thus, any institution that wishes to decolonize should return the land to Indigenous populations.

There were questions that needed answers: Could everything be decolonized? Which English literary curriculum did I wish to decolonize? Would decolonization demand different strategies in different parts of the world? I recalled discussing with Ato Quayson the largely sophisticated scholarship on the institution of English literary studies from India (one of my areas of study). But I had neglected to ask what we meant when we said the English literary curriculum. While there was a reasonable answer to this second question based on our professional locations in the United States, it nagged me that I had understood what the editors meant when they said the English literary curriculum. This was exactly the path from language to identity I hoped to disrupt in my scholarship.

At the same time as calls for decolonization have grown across scholarly fields, so have calls to caution. We know from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s foundational essay that decolonization is not a metaphor (Reference Tuck and YangTuck and Wang). It is not possible to decolonize in culturally, historically, or geopolitically abstract ways. Thus, at the outset, it is important to acknowledge – in the spirit of decentering and decolonizing – that there is no one English literary curriculum. Today, English literature is not only taught or studied in the US American academy but in many anglophone and nonanglophone countries, where it can be a vehicle for language skills and taught with a wide variety of textual materials beyond a shared understanding of a literary canon (Reference Ben-YishaiBen-Yishai; Reference Kuortti, Bahri and MenozziKuortti). Scholars of English literature in erstwhile colonies have also engaged with it with a keen understanding of the colonial foundations of the English literary curriculum. Well before institutions in the United States changed their departmental names to reflect the diversity of what can be studied under the sign of English, Indian universities were offering degrees in Literature in English (Reference FlahertyFlaherty).

Surveying the contemporary decolonization discourse, Roopika Risam argues that the verb “decolonize” often functions as “extractive currency,” and “decolonization” itself becomes a metaphor for “diversity work” that “assuages white guilt and obfuscates institutional complicities with the structural violence of racism” (Reference Risam11). Less pessimistic about the possibility of decolonization, Christopher J. Lee nonetheless attributes a “cruel optimism” to the imagined revolutionary potential of decolonization movements and projects. Lee argues that decolonization is not necessarily revolutionary, as the calls to decolonize are bound doubly in the tragedy of the postcolonial and the eternal hope of a revolution.2 Writing about political cul-de-sacs and fantasies of radical change that debilitatingly never arrive, Lee leaves the reader with more questions about the political objectives of decolonization. Is decolonization a resetting of the order to a prior moment before colonization or is it an end in pursuit of a future yet to come? That decolonization – literal, figurative – may not equal revolution or progress is amply illustrated by neocolonial postcolonial states and the ascendance of ethnic and religious nationalism across the world.

In the specific context of English literary curriculum, a generation of postcolonial scholars have shown that both the English language and English literature as a disciplinary field of study were first piloted as political and administrative projects in the colonies.3 The translation of local cultures into the English language made governance efficient and English literature held up values of morality and civility for the colonial subjects. This well-known history – brought to bear upon English literary studies through postcolonial scholarship – prompted Gaurav Desai to write in his essay “Rethinking English Studies: Postcolonial English Studies” (Reference Desai, Schwarz and Ray2005) that “no aspect of English literary studies, whether it be concerned with the Medieval period or the Renaissance or the Romantics can ignore its own colonial conditions of possibility” (525).

How does one decolonize a field of study that was invented in and for the better control of British colonies? How does one decolonize when coloniality is not a bug but a feature? Briefly, these questions made me wonder if perhaps Reference wa Thiong’o, Owuor-Anyumba, Lo Liyong, Ashcroft, Griffiths and TiffinNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o had the right idea when he called for the abolition of English departments, rejecting the primacy of English language and literature and turning instead to African literature (Reference wa Thiong’o, Owuor-Anyumba, Lo Liyong, Ashcroft, Griffiths and TiffinNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o). He and Obiajunwa Wali before him both argued that African literature in English was a contradiction of terms. Instead, in “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1972), Ngũgĩ, along with Taban Li Liyong and Henry Owuor-Anyumba, proposed the possibility of imagining literary studies from the perspective of African cultures.

What is at stake in wanting to hold on to English departments and English literary curricula in the first place? Why decolonize, why not burn it all down?

A New Geopolitics of the English Literary Curriculum

These deliberately provocative questions are not meant to diminish our collective efforts in this volume or to cast doubt on them but to gather context. The political and intellectual challenges to the project of decolonization can clarify what is at stake and illuminate the path ahead. If English is the language of British colonialism and US American neoimperialism, it is also the language lived and made anew by the colonized every day. At stake in holding onto an English department is the potential to restage the encounter with a colonial language and to retell the story of English – as resistance, rebuttal, and regeneration. Decolonizing the English literary curriculum is an opportunity to reworld the sign of “English” from its historical and cultural others, where “reworlding” as “re-creating/remaking/reconstituting after centuries of de-constitution and destitution of other worlds and other lives of those who were subjected to genocide, enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism and heteropatriarchal sexism” (Reference Ndlovu-GatsheniNdlovu-Gatsheni).

My essay answers the call to decolonize the English literary curriculum by proposing what María Lugones has called a “new geopolitics” of the English language. In her essay, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism” (Reference Lugones2010), Lugones wrote that the potential for decoloniality lies in a new geopolitics of “knowing and loving,” calling decolonization a practice that is concerned with the politics of knowledge production and contesting the colonial world order established by European empires (Reference Lugones756). Thinking between the colonial and neocolonial geopolitics of English cutting through my classroom in the US American South, I call attention to the embodied, multimedia, and multilingual mediations that bring something called English language and literature into the classroom. The pedagogical objective of decolonization is not simply to substitute and replace English literature with other language literatures. Instead, I understand decolonization as an active program of reading and critique – of reworlding – that traces the relations of an “English literary curriculum” with other languages and literary cultures. This program of reading implicates the reader in challenging the stable meanings of an ideological, historical, and geographical English.

To this end, I reprise the term “vernacular” which I proposed in Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India (Reference Saxena2022) to argue that the unmarked neutrality of English as a scholarly medium as well as its much remarked-upon expropriations as a global imperialist language both perpetuate the absorptive logic of English. In Vernacular English, I examine the English language as part of the multilingual local milieu of postcolonial India by turning to a transmedia archive of little-known debates and practices that have shaped the meanings of the English language in India – from English, Hindi, and Urdu literature to law, film, visual art, and public protests. For instance, British colonial administration in the eighteenth century advanced English as a translational vernacular that could encode Indian languages. This functional administrative role of English as a language of universal communicability takes on a new political life as the Roman script becomes a vernacular writing system for numerous Indian languages in digital media. At the same time, the English language was adopted as postcolonial India’s associate official language along with Hindi. Low castes, Dalits, and tribal/Adivasi (Indigenous) groups have routinely used the “elite” language of English – available in the Indian Constitution – to protest the Hindu casteist Indian state. The representative power of English, its imagined and desired capacity to speak for colonized and independent people, makes English a vernacular language in India.

As it explores the vernacular registers of a global language, Vernacular English challenges postcolonial and comparative literary studies’ reliance on the vernacular as something non-English – something common, native, local, nondominant, and Indigenous. Vernacular is often used to refer to a common – demotic, nonelite, nonstandard – experience of language. In scholarship on India, vernacular is a term reserved for quotidian and local registers of modern Indian languages, or bhashas. But reading across medieval, early modern, and African American discussions of the vernacular shows that a vernacular is as much a political assertion as it is an embattled position. Indeed, as much historically grounded scholarship has shown, equating the vernacular with authenticity is historically inaccurate and theoretically suspect, as it loses sight of how languages are politically marshalled as expressions of cultural authenticity.4 As Christina Kullberg and David Watson write, “the vernacular is not only a language or a thing such as an expression of the local, rather it refers to certain potentiality of language to become something else; it is a pre-coded language that may be politically, aesthetically, or culturally charged” (Reference Kullberg and Watson19). Associating vernacular with only the minor misses how vernacular languages, literature, and knowledge brace religious fascism and anticaste resistance in India.

Against the groundswell of discussions on global English, “vernacular” reframes the English language within multilingual landscapes where it is often, in the words of Rebecca Reference WalkowitzWalkowitz, “less than one language” (Reference Walkowitz“Less Than” 95). Vernacular English is a way of asking “what becomes intelligible as English and how does English become intelligible,” questions that can be asked about any language. “Vernacular” surfaces a new geopolitics of English language and literature by convening literary production outside of metropolitan centers. At the same time, it also models a practice of reading that explores nontextual modes of languaging at the limits of ability, expertise, and literacy. To call English a vernacular is not to simply say that English is another Indian language or that English is suddenly not a language of power and dominance. Instead, vernacular is a way of naming the colonial and global power structures associated with English without reinscribing them each time we discuss the language.

In this pursuit of English as a vernacular, existing work by postcolonial scholars offers a starting point to think from. Postcolonial studies as a field has led the examination of the colonial foundations of English literature as a discipline (Reference AhmadAhmed; Bhattacharya). It has brought attention to literatures from the previously colonized parts of the world, showing that colonial Englishness is always tied with the subjectivity of the colonized (Reference BhabhaBhabha). The comparative methods of postcolonial studies have centered translation as a critical practice and concept to examine transnational cultural flows. This scholarship offers us new perspectives – different ways of staging the colonial and capitalist encounters – on the compulsory global-ness of the English language and English literature. As Gauri Viswanathan argued in an interview with Michael Allan, “To regain the world through other imaginings that recapture texts from a point outside the institution offers a challenge to English studies that its postcolonial offshoot has considerably reinvigorated” (Reference AllanAllan 246).

Thus, in contrast to Lee’s ambivalent conclusions about the objectives of decolonization, I find useful Debashree Mukherjee and Pavitra Sundar’s special issue on decolonial feminist media studies. Reference Mukherjee and SundarMukherjee and Sundar present “decolonial” as a term to describe an active process, not the marker of a particular historical epoch that has passed but an active, evolving set of strategies. Like them, I see “the future not as an endpoint, the decolonial not as a goalpost, but rather as an ongoing struggle, a revolution that is not past or impending, failed or irretrievable, but continual” (Reference Mukherjee and Sundar13).

This ongoing nature of decolonization is not simply temporal or chronological. The call to decolonize is multidirectional and not just directed at the imperial center. Postcolonial scholars such as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and Ania Loomba have shown how English literature “became the surrogate – and also the split – presence of the Englishman, or a repository of abstract and universal values freely available to the colonized as much as to the colonizer” (Reference RajanRajan 12). It offered anticolonial and nationalist thinkers the epistemic grounds from which to critique the empire. As a scholar of South Asia, the imperative to decolonize English literary curriculum is meaningful both in the Anglo-American academic contexts and in India where “decoloniality” has given credence to casteist and majoritarian consolidation of what native or local culture should be. Aditya Nigam’s Decolonizing Theory: Thinking Across Traditions argues that the idea of the nation demands a homogeneity of culture in anticolonial gestures and that the Hindu Right in India ironically relies on colonial knowledge production to claim a Brahminical Hindu past as Indigenous (Reference NigamNigam). In the context of global modern and premodern histories of migration, the turn to Indigeneity can also justify a politics of exclusion.5

Indeed, the risks of romanticizing an unsullied precolonial past or elsewhere and the awareness of an enduring coloniality as the condition of our work make decoloniality an ongoing struggle. This is also what makes Reference NigamNgũgĩ principled position unsustainable. In the context of the famous language debates between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ, I often think of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s essay “The Language of African Literature: A Writer’s Testimony” (Reference Saro-Wiwa1992) in the special issue on the Language Question in Research in African Literature. Saro-Wiwa not only defended his decision to write in English, as British colonialism had rendered English education an integral experience in Nigeria; but Saro-Wiwa also framed colonialism as “not a matter only of British, French, or European dominance over Africans” but also the rule of the numerical majority over the numerical minority. “In African society, there is and has always been colonial oppression,” wrote Saro-Wiwa, and he raised questions about “the implications of [Ngũgĩ’s] decision for the minority ethnic groups in Kenya and for the future of Kenya as a multiethnic nation or, indeed, as a nation at all” (Reference Saro-Wiwa156).6

Or take the example of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education.” No story of postcolonial studies or English literary studies can begin without invoking this speech, which changed India and English education for ever. It highlights the complicity of English education with colonial expansion as well as the institutional marginalization of local linguistic and literary cultures in India in favor of English education. The Orientalist-Anglicist debates are important to teach students about the history of English education in the colonies. One way to build on the existing body of scholarship on the lasting impact of Macaulay’s policies is to introduce the question of caste. For instance, the introduction of English language and literature did not simply create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” (Reference Macaulay, Zastoupil and MoirMacaulay 171). It also sharpened what Aatish Taseer has called the linguistic colorline in India. Historian Shefali Chandra’s The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in India (Reference Chandra2012), for instance, discusses how English education presented a way of consolidating caste privilege in India even as it opened paths to mobility for those not privileged in terms of caste and gender.

It would be pedagogically productive in this context to pair Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” with Dalit writer Reference PrasadChandrabhan Prasad’s short essay “The Impure Milk of Macaulay” and excerpts of Chandra’s work (which includes poems of praise in English by feminist anticaste thinker Savitribai Phule). With libertarian leanings, Prasad has praised the English language for its potential to usher Dalits and other minoritized groups into circuits of global capitalism where the Brahminical dominance is contested and made irrelevant. Prasad specifically celebrates Macaulay’s birthday publicly every year and has argued that Macaulay’s proposal was not in itself wrong but just imperfectly executed. He draws attention to the lines after the oft-cited ones I have quoted above: “To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population” (Reference Macaulay, Zastoupil and MoirMacaulay 171). The problem with Macaulay’s proposal, according to Prasad, was not the hierarchization and replacement of Sanskrit and Persian knowledge systems but the brahmins’ abdication of their responsibilities to the castes below them.

While Prasad might be one of the most provocative and playful proponents of the English language in India – he has built a temple for the English goddess – he is far from the only one (Reference SaxenaSaxena). The English language continues to live in less identifiable ways as the Roman script for languages understood to be more “native” or as the language of choice for writers who may not have access to other linguistic and literary traditions (Reference MisraMisra). For instance, in his work on Santali language in Graphic Politics in Eastern India: Script and the Quest for Autonomy (Reference Choksi2021), Nishaant Choksi shows that a Roman alphabet–based script devised by missionaries came to be the preferred script for Santali, an Austroasiatic language spoken in eastern India, Nepal, and Bangladesh largely by Adivasi (original inhabitants, “Indigenous”) communities. A nonstandard Romanized Santali transcription, which was initially created to mediate between several other scripts of Santali, gained prominence as Santali speakers started using it in digital and online communication in the twenty-first century. Choksi calls this script a “trans-script” since the graphic choices involved in it invoke the knowledge of multiple scripts by people utilizing the script digitally and in print (Reference Choksi62). Examples like these require that as literary critics and teachers, we keep in view what English – across modalities of sound and script – reveals and what it remakes. This objective also demands new reading practices that can take an expansive approach to reading and language.

Tracing my path toward decolonizing through the insights and work of postcolonial scholars, I find useful Reference Mukherjee and SundarMukherjee and Sundar’s words that claim no newness for their pursuit of decolonial feminist approaches to media studies but see it as unfinished work that needs to be done. According to them, the challenge is to ask how to do this work – how to think decolonization – in the contemporary moment. They call for humility that traces different genealogies of their own efforts to decolonize. This means acknowledging the work of communities, practitioners, activists, and scholars before us. This collaborative and coalitional approach to literary history is necessarily comparative and interdisciplinary.

Decolonizing Language

The question of language – in all its forms – has been critical for scholars in postcolonial studies. Knowledge of “other languages” and language as such is foundational to challenge colonial projects. As Julietta Singh writes in Unthinking Mastery (Reference Singh2020), “across twentieth century anticolonial discourses, language repeatedly emerged as one of the most vital problems in the production and articulation of decolonized subjectivities” (Reference Singh69). But “the intellectual authority of literary and area studies, its ‘credibility’ and ‘viability,’ continuously relies on mastery as its target, as that which will produce authoritative, legitimate knowledge and in so doing resist the power of Eurocentrism” (Reference Singh8).

Such an approach to language, ironically, works with a monolingual model and loses sight of the diverse modes of languaging and subject formation. Today, these concerns with multilingualism and translation have come closer home as scholars reflect on the classroom space in the United States and how the global lives of languages challenge the monolingual logic of our institutions and critical methods. Yet, at the same time as language learning has become critical to thinking our classrooms and universities, the questions about our reading method are still less concerned with them.

Decolonizing English literary curriculum does not conclude with the curricular inclusion of languages besides English, whether in the original or in translation. Instead, we must interrogate how languages reveal and disappear a variety of linguistic experience. The corollary of the critique of the monolingual paradigm is that notions of multilingualism also rest on the countability/cohesion of languages. We cannot count without assuming languages to be discrete, and we cannot think linguistic discrete-ness without ascribing to some kind of monolingual logic.7 By asking how we know what we know, we might take multilingualism as a decolonial method without counting languages and reinforcing colonial notions of language.

The vernacular lives of English language and literature outside of South Asia also emphasize the people who use the English language rather than any inherent colonial meanings. I will take just one example from Caribbean anglophone literature. Writing about the late eighteenth-century history of Creole “dialect” literature, Belinda Edmondson in Creole Noise: Early Caribbean Dialect Literature and Performance (Reference Singh2021) rejects the racialization of English as White and creole as Black as historically inaccurate. She shows the lived multiracial and transnational origins of literary dialect that counters its story as “mimicry” or merely as a political strategy. For conceptual purchase on Edmondson’s arguments, I turn to perhaps the most foundational and memorable for vernacular English – Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s idea of the “nation language.” It frames English as a vernacular that is used by the people. The politics of English – whether the master’s tools can ever destroy the master’s house – depends on the people who bring the revolution. Nation language, thus, not only brings English closer to the bodies that speak and in whose name English is spoken, it also suggests that we take the different sensory experiences of Caribbean language users into account to understand its meaning. About Caribbean poetry, Braithwaite writes, “noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you lose part of the meaning” (Reference Braithwaite17). Thus, as we read the English language in the classroom, we might also be alert to its sonic and phonic materiality.

Vernacular English – as a practice of reading in translation and transmediation – seeks to hold on to the part of the meaning that Braithwaite thought would be lost in language as written. It approaches multilingualism through relationality with other named languages and highlights different sensory engagements with language itself. In doing so, it also approaches the “bodies and experiences [that] have served as structuring absences” in our scholarly histories and attempt to remediate their absence (Reference Mukherjee and SundarMukherjee and Sundar 7).

As I have argued before, the term anglophone – with its emphasis on the heteronymic speakers (people and technologies) – can be a productive term to read the vernacular life of English. Anglophone as a term also centers practices of translation and transmediation. The argument that anglophone literature necessarily translates between different linguistic cultures also provides the opportunity to examine through what embodied and material mediations languages come into being (Reference WalkowitzWalkowitz, Born Translated; Reference MuftiMufti Forget English!). Theorists and practitioners of translation in critical translation studies have thought how language becomes meaningful in relation to other languages. They have shown that translations bring languages into being, they do not just translate from one existing linguistic discourse to another. Attention to how language happens – how English become recognizable – can also center the people who make it and inflect the colonial logics of language imposition.

Literary studies have long been concerned with the liberal axiom of voice – who speaks – and have thus sought to bring new voices into the scholarly field. While this is an important step in decolonizing the English literary curriculum, it is not the only one. The next section asks the critic and teacher to situate themselves and their conceptual categories: who listens and how? Which English is legitimized as “English” and which as its “other”? How do we, as readers, make English speak on the page?

English lives contested politically and mediated across the world in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan), the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and anglophone Africa. For instance, English is not only a formerly colonial language in South Asia or a language of the postcolonial state in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. As we saw in the brief survey above, it is also a populist language that mediates Dalit, racioethnic, and Indigenous assertion against the fascist logics of vernaculars such as Hindi, Urdu, and Sinhala. Here, English often lives outside literary works – on other media and in other languages – as “less than one language,” as a sound, a sight, and materiality that inflects meanings on the page. We must make the diverse English practitioners in the Global South our interlocutors so that literatures of the anglophone world, for instance, are not just read through the language – English, theory – of the Global North.

Strategies in the Classroom

So how do we teach vernacular English in the classroom or teach in the shadow of vernacular English? This section answers the question with a multipronged approach. It makes suggestions for building a syllabus, an early classroom exercise, and a teachable literary text.

Syllabus In their essay “Twisted Tongues, Tied Hands: Translation Studies and the English Major” (Reference Wittman and Windon2010), Emily O. Wittman and Katrina Windon model how translation history can be taught as English literary history. Translation makes visible voices and stories that disappear within a univocal and racialized understanding of what it means to be English and study English literature. Using translation as the organizing principle of literary survey courses or world literature courses can strengthen relations with other literary cultures and language departments. It can make space for the study of marginalized authors and texts and shore up affinities between the knowledge students bring from outside the classroom and the materials they encounter in it. It models a possible conceptual framework for students to situate literary fields such as early modern, American, and postcolonial studies. In doing so, translation also illuminates moments in time and space where – either by love or violence – discontinuous literary cultures become continuous.

For instance, in my world literature course, I often teach Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino to discuss how p’Bitek uses Acholi words and idiomatic expressions to construct a linguistically grounded literary world. Song of Lawino is modeled as an epic poem. The poem is addressed by Lawino to her clansmen and invokes an oral tradition. Lawino’s husband, Ocol, has returned from England with a newfound distaste for his native customs. In each of the verse chapters of Song of Lawino, Lawino bitterly criticizes Ocol’s now-preferred “Western” customs of food, clothing, and kinship and argues that these are not sensible ways for her to adopt within her cultural context. Given Lawino’s investment in authenticity and her desire to persuade Ocol to see the wrongheadedness of his cultural mimicry, it is easy to read Song of Lawino as a literary text that claims authenticity for itself when, in fact, it stages the dangers of binary ethnocentric thinking in colonial and anticolonial positions.

The chapter “The Poet as ‘Native Anthropologist’: Ethnography and Antiethnography in Okot p’Bitek’s Songs” in Jahan Ramazani’s The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English (Reference Ramazani2001) can be a valuable secondary resource to teach Song of Lawino. It brings together reviews of p’Bitek’s poem to show how it was praised as a literary work that was quintessentially Ugandan. By showing p’Bitek’s stylistic debts to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and examining the relation of postcolonial studies and anthropology, Ramazani argues Song of Lawino reverses the ethnographic gaze often cast on postcolonial literature.

Building on Ramazani’s work, I teach Song of Lawino with sections of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s poems collected in Robert Dale Reference Schoolcraft and ParkerParker’s The Sounds the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky (2008). This pairing complicates expectations of authenticity or cultural immediacy we might bring to a poem that features several Acholi “untranslatable” words and idioms. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is perhaps the first known Native American poet. She wrote in Ojibwe and English. Her husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was an Indian agent who liaised between Indigenous communities and White settlers. As he collected Ojibwe stories and translated them to further his career as a writer, he erased the collaborative contribution and work of his wife, Jane. Teaching Song of Lawino through its longer history of literary influence and “cultural theft” (Reference Schoolcraft and ParkerParker 26) can help address anxieties of authenticity and create conditions for a coalitional thinking that reads Indigenous and African literature relationally.

Assignment A classroom exercise that can sharpen students’ awareness of the uneven relation between language and identity is “Linguistic Autobiography.” I borrowed this exercise from Pavitra Sundar to heighten students’ awareness of their own linguistic and lingual experiences in a collaborative course on “accent.” I have since found it useful to ask students to craft a linguistic biography at the beginning of most courses that deal specifically with language and power. The exercise also draws out for students their own latent multilingualism, which can destabilize the classroom as a monolingual space. We revisit the exercise at the end of the course to reflect on the way readings on translation and multilingualism may have transformed their own sense of themselves. Rather than further a straightforward relation between language and identity, this assignment turns attention to the students’ lived experiences of language to answer the question, how do we know what we know?

Write an essay 2–3 pages long outlining your history and relationship to language. What is the relationship between language and your identity, your personal and familial history? Your linguistic autobiography should address not only languages you’ve studied formally, but the accents, registers, and dialects (or varieties) that have come to mark your speech and your language use more generally. How was language categorized for you in your growing years? What institutions have been linked to language? What people do you associate with different varieties of language that have been important in your life? Think also about how your understanding of language – your own and others’ language – has shifted since arriving at [Vanderbilt]. What did you come to know about other people and their language use when you came to college?

In thinking about these questions, you may recall moments of linguistic stereotyping you’ve experienced or observed. Feel free to write about such moments of linguistic discrimination. But think also about moments that were (or seemed) less fraught. Think of moments when you have struggled with a language or when it came so easy you were told you have an “ear” for language. What assumptions about language (about particular languages, accents, or dialects) were embedded in those moments of learning and disciplining? How were you taught about language – how were you being taught language ideologies – even as you were learning to read, write, and speak?

Text Much has been written about the insufficiency of the frameworks of world literature and global anglophone because they eclipse other languages. I want to propose a lesser known text, I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (2019), which asks us to consider the latent multilingualism of one language in the spirit of the assignment above, the materiality of language in the spirit of Braithwaite’s nation language, the question of translation as mediation, as well as the comparative grammars of caste and race that bring necessary nuance to discussions of decoloniality in the United States and the Indian subcontinent. This text could be taught in a postcolonial studies course, a world literature course, or a translation course for a presumed monolingual audience. As we teach translation, the English translation of I Even Regret Night challenges our relation to those translations. It complicates any expectation of an anticolonial or resistant politics from a writer of color or Bhojpuri and thwarts other marginalized languages and writers as essentialized identity positions from where to extract indigeneity.

I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara was written by Lalbihari Reference ShastriShastri in the early twentieth century and published in 1916. Through it, translator Rajiv Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir offers us an example of recovery as well as of English as a translational vernacular. I Even Regret Night is the only known literary work written by an indentured laborer in the anglophone Caribbean. Sharma originally belonged to what is now the state of Bihar in India. He was bound to the Golden Fleece Plantation in British Guyana, and his poems describe his life on the island.

Originally published in the Bhojpuri dialect as a pamphlet of spiritual songs in the style of sixteenth-century devotional poetry, I Even Regret Night became available in English only recently, in 2019, through the collaborative efforts of several different people, including Gaiutra Bahadur and Rajiv Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir. Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman (2013). Her research in that book reveals that Reference ShastriShastri was likely an upper-caste director on the plantation in British Guyana. He wrote Hindu songs of devotion in Bhojpuri to celebrate the festival of Holi. Decades later, Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir, with the assistance of several different translators, translated this rare record of indentured diasporic experiences in the Indo-Caribbean. The act of translation and the constitution of the poems into a book form dramatizes a return to home promised by the unfulfilled indenture contract. English translation of Shastri’s poetry is an act of historical recovery and literary discovery.

In her introduction to I Even Regret Night, Bahadur writes that she had really wanted to recover this “footnote” in history into English to bring it to the descendants of indenture. She understood the value of anglophone availability and wanted to render into English what she at the time thought must be a radical voice. The songs penned by Reference ShastriShastri were in, what Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir has called, a “broken” language – the Bhojpuri of the plantation, with few speakers in the world today – and had lived a flimsy textual life up until the publication. Bahadur writes poignantly about her desire for Reference ShastriShastri to be a politically radical figure but learns over the course of her research that he was indeed a man of conservative politics, who likely sided with the plantation owners rather than with the indentured workers on the land. Still, it is a story that gains importance as a document about identity as it is and disseminated by other Indo-Caribbean descendants.

Bahadur approached and entrusted this translational project to Rajiv Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir. For Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir, the translator, poetry and folk music are important poetic inspiration. He has written in the doubly broken language of the indentured laborers and their descendants in his other works such as The Cowherd’s Son (2017) and also reflected beautifully on coming into language through idioms cast away by history in Antiman (2021). He writes:

By reading and translating Sharma, I’ve learned to constantly engage with the materiality of sound as I attempt to reclaim what is lost to my generation. I have come to truly appreciate that in order to do so I must write in and out of all my languages: Guyanese Creole, English, and Bhojpuri. In Sharma’s plantation Hindi, I hear echoes of my own ancestors singing for the spring of the soul, praying colors into play.

In his “Translator’s Note,” Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir writes that his translation was itself a kind of activism and he hopes that readers will appreciate the texture of Caribbean political existence through its oral cultures:

Given that South Asian languages rarely appear [in] the world of postcolonial Caribbean literature, it is my sincerest hope that people come to this text understanding what this tradition of oral language gives to the Caribbean landscape. Our particular mix of South Asian languages has been almost entirely extinguished by the cultural hegemony of English.

Keeping these political resonances of different linguistic registers in play, the English translation of I Even Regret Night published by Kaya Press is bilingual. It places Bhojpuri and English verses en face and categorizes Shastri’s songs into different traditions of song and poetry such as Chautal, Kavitt, Chaupai, and Ulara. Additionally, it includes Creole transliterations of the songs for contemporary users of the songbook, along with sounds of the early twentieth-century Golden Fleece through Shastri’s poetry as in this song, “Dimki dimki/ on the damaru drum / tananana plays the bhrigi. / Sararara sararara / the bowed sarangi lilts / the solfa” (Reference ShastriShastri 63). This archive of sound, spirituality, image, orality, and music curated by Sharma is translated into English against English. The collection also features transliterations as Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir and others transform a text for music “originally intended to be worn in throats and ears, into one that belongs to an entirely different world” (Reference Mohabir and ShastriMohabir 197).8 Different kinds of sounds ricochet across the pages of this small book and create a sonic effect quite different from Shastri’s already polyvocal songs. Mohabir writes that his desire was to reproduce the materiality of sound in these poems, sounds that were lost to him as a descendant of indenture. Anglophone poetry in the works Mohabir is itself a migrant from different media forms and languages.

The translations highlight the wide and varied worlds that English lives in today and reminds us that English has always had plurilingual and polyvocal lives. From here, Mohabir’s translation of I Even Regret Night demands a newer conceptualization of English as a language that is necessarily always in translation. Mohabir runs his fingers over the coordinates of political history to recover a personal history, conjuring the ghostly memories of ancestors passed. In this process, he also remakes and resounds the language of dominant power carving out a specifically resistant postlingual aesthetics that rises from the much-maligned racialized body that speaks English. Rebecca Walkowitz and Yasser Elhariry describe postlingual as a turn to the lingual (happening around the tongue) against the linguistic, that recognizes languages as necessarily learned and not natural. “No one is born speaking or writing a language. We all begin as language learners, and in that sense, there are no native languages. There are only foreign languages” (Reference Elhariry and Walkowitz3).

The text is helpful to think about the oral cultures that have shaped the life of the English language. Reading the poems out loud in the classroom can recreate some of the sonic atmosphere of the anglophone. It is important to create a sense of how different languages exist together and through our breath suffuse the English language with the sounds of other languages.

Taking their English seriously and distinguishing it from hegemonic forms of language is crucial to decolonizing and not consolidating the authority of a global language. In this goal, historical scholarship and postcolonial studies are both our ally. Works such as Lalbihari Shastri’s can help respond to the global hegemony of languages like English and Hindi as well as invite a critical eye on the Hindu diaspora’s role in supporting Hindutva ascendancy in India. Decolonizing also means being critical about the nation as a category and a continuing commitment to antiracist and anticaste pedagogies.

Chapter 13 Reading for Justice On the Pleasures and Pitfalls of a Decolonizing Pedagogy

Ato Quayson

Like most people seeing the video clip of the police killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, I was viscerally shocked and inconsolable. While it is true that racial and social injustice have been commonplace throughout the entire history of the United States, the George Floyd moment seems to have intensified our consciousness of it in a way different than had been in the past.1 In addition to this, my relatively recent arrival in the USA in 2017 meant that I was on an acute learning curve to understand such fraught race relations at very close quarters, something that my sojourns in the UK and Canada over the previous two decades had not quite prepared me for, despite the evident tensions in race relations in those countries too. The events around George Floyd’s death also opened my eyes to the fact that my entire literary training, both personal and professional, had not prepared me for thinking about how to relate what I did as a professor of literature to what was unfolding around me in the outside world. I kept asking myself if what I did in the classroom had any bearing on the terrible conditions of racial and social injustice that were being persistently expressed around us. While I had myself grown up in a context of political turmoil in Ghana in the 1980s under the military junta of J. J. Rawlings, in which the study of literature was always done with an eye to the political turmoil of the outside world, I had never been personally disposed to connect the torn halves of my intellectual life in any coherent way. At any rate, the question of instrumentalist readings of literature had always remained anathema to me, and I insisted in my teaching and writing on first prioritizing close attention and respect for literary details within the texts themselves before any attempt was made to apply them in any way to the outside world. And it was not unusual for me to stop at the level of textual analysis itself, enacting what I thought was radical enough through different forms of close-reading inflected by Marxism, postcolonialism, or forms disruptive of what appeared to be predictable interpretations of the African postcolonial text, or indeed the canonical Western text. And the more I thought about these matters in the context of the United States, the more I felt that I needed to do a full and careful rethink of my most fundamental principles as a literary scholar and teacher. As I stated to various colleagues and friends in the months following George Floyd’s killing, teaching literature anywhere in the United States is not like teaching it in Prague or Accra. If proof were needed of this truism, 2020 had amply provided it.

But then a major and recalcitrant question arises. What does it actually mean to read for justice and what might this entail? To read for justice each one of us has first to have a personal commitment to fighting against injustice. Now, depending on our particular interests, we will likely define injustice quite differently. But the point is to feel strongly that there is something not quite right with the world as it is, and to commit oneself to making it better. In other words, you cannot really read for justice if you think the world is just fine as it is. Something must bother you about the outside world to start with, and no matter how little it is, an irritating speck of sand in the eye even, you must want to do something about it. But the thing that is bothering you may be something that you see only by yourself. The important thing is that it should be bad enough to galvanize you to try and do something about it. Reading for justice will then be a constituent part of that larger set of concerns. This also means being comfortable with lifting your head out of the books you are reading and looking at the world outside with new, committed eyes.

One of the things that struck me most forcefully as Ankhi Mukherjee and I started working on the proposal for Decolonizing the English Literary Curriculum is how important it is to come to terms with the struggles for justice of other equity-seeking groups so that we can understand how to decolonize the literary curriculum more holistically and not just from the perspective of critical race theory or postcolonialism. As we note in the Introduction, demands for reform of the English literature curriculum are often made by equity-seeking groups seeking either the overhaul of the curriculum or its complete replacement with something that appears more equitable to such groups.  The term “decolonizing” has historically specific as well as metaphorical implications. Thus, the term “equity-seeking groups” would minimally include at least the following: people of color and racial minorities, persons with disabilities, persons with nonheteronormative sexual orientations, formerly colonized people, Native peoples (pertaining specifically to Australia, Canada, and the United States), women, Jews, and Muslims, among others.

Here, I want to register a note of caution, which as you will quickly see, comes from my thoroughly engrained scholarly disposition. I do not think that reading for justice or attempting to decolonize our reading practices simply means reading for political positions inside of the literary text, whatever those political positions might be thought to be. And I do not think that reading for justice is merely reading literary content for the extent to which a particular text empowers or disempowers various communities of the dispossessed. Those are obviously important questions, but as I repeat at the start of all my African literature classes, to read Chinua Reference AchebeAchebe’s Things Fall Apart is not the same as reading the New York Times. We are obliged in reading the former to think of the ways in which Reference AchebeAchebe mediates our access to nineteenth-century colonial relations between the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria and the colonial authorities depicted in his novel. And to do this, we are obliged to get a clear sense of what he is doing as a writer of literature primarily, and not as a journalist or indeed historian. I may have irreparably undermined my case for trying to set out some methods for reading for justice in what I have just said, but I think it is important to keep the distinctions between literature and other nonliterary writings in mind even as we intentionally try to bridge the gap between them.

Just Add Achebe (or Toni Morrison)!

In reading for justice, a preliminary distinction must be drawn between decolonizing the curriculum and decolonizing our reading of individual texts. The first is much more elusive and difficult than the other, especially as it touches on what is typically conceived of as the breadth requirements completing a degree in English literary studies. Steady criticisms of the literary curriculum from different interest groups since the late 1960s, rising in intensity in the 1980s, have led to progressive changes to the curriculum in many parts of the world, most critically in Europe and America. The changes have taken place on two fronts: first on that of adding writers to the curriculum from different cultural traditions – Reference AchebeAchebe or Morrison or Head or Rushdie or Coetzee. But these additive changes often do not alter the way in which the literary texts themselves are taught. For while work by Shakespeare and Milton is often taught as literary texts, with all the rigorous apparatus of discursive proof that this requires, Reference AchebeAchebe and others from the postcolonial and non-White world are merely viewed as ethnic sociologists and native informants. The problem then is not that students in most Euro-American university programs are required to study large period papers, but that when they are exposed to literatures from outside of mainstream White Euro-America, those are treated in a subliterary way, such that there is an implicit structural bias in how they are embedded into the curriculum in the first place. What is even more worrying is that in most English departments, breadth requirements are structured such that areas such as postcolonial or world literature are tagged on as electives rather than as core requirements, so that it is perfectly possible for a student to complete an entire English literature degree without having even the faintest acquaintance with anything beyond the Euro-American hegemonic White canon. And yet the corrective to this often-undisguised bias is not just to make acquaintance with writers from other traditions a core requirement of the degree, important though this is, but also to assess whether professors have made a commitment to evolving beyond their original areas of expertise to encompass and incorporate insights from other literary and cultural traditions. For most other literary specialists, there is no incentive to know anything beyond one’s immediate area, the perfectly defensible position being that those things are best left to the specialists in those other areas. This, I think, is a serious mistake both in the ways in which we train our students and in our pedagogical dispositions. For the English literary curriculum ought to be thought of holistically and interconnected in all its parts, with each part able to speak to all the others. I will elaborate on some ideas for conceiving of this broader curricular purview later on in this chapter.

Context versus Contexture: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

As Edward Said has pointed out: “Every act of criticism is always literally tied to a set of social and historical circumstances; the problem is in specifying or characterizing the relationship, not merely in asserting that it exists” (Reference SaidReflections 171). This applies both to the context of production, and as Michaela Reference BronsteinBronstein adroitly argues in Out of Context (Reference Bronstein2018) with respect to modernist literature, in the transhistorical encounter between texts and readers across time and in different cultural contexts. This explains for example how Ngũgĩ rereads, critiques, and replicates formal and thematic details from Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s Under Western Eyes for his own A Grain of Wheat (see Reference BronsteinBronstein 147–59). Reference AchebeAchebe echoes similar principles in invoking the elemental character of the Umuofian forest at different points in Things Fall Apart. In various accounts of literary history, the literary text has been interpreted as a form of social chronicle, or as the expressive ensemble of a class or social fraction, and thus been made to yield direct insights into discrete sociological forms beyond the literary. As noted earlier (p. 258), this is especially true with respect to texts from the non-White Euro-American world, though not exclusively. This tendency has by no means remained uncontested, since it is also patently the case that literary form transcends its context or repeatedly refuses straightforward contextualization. This generates efforts to identify the particular syntax of such sociocultural forms, whether they are ultimately relatable to classes or other methodologically definable sociological entities. The social, on the other hand, has also been seen as produced by the referential relays within a discursive ensemble in which different fragments “speak” to each other across the interplay of knowledge, ideology, and power. This is essentially the view of Stephen Greenblatt and the New Historicists. Gallagher and Greenblatt note: “The interpreter must be able to select or to fashion, out of the confused continuum of social existence, units of social action small enough to hold within the fairly narrow boundaries of full analytical attention, and this attention must be unusually intense, nuanced and sustained” (26). The operational phrases in their formulation seem to be “confused continuum of social existence” and “units of social action.” We might add the observation that every social context identified as providing the “background” to the literary representation is already processual, in motion and on the threshold of dissolving into something else. This then requires the careful bounding of the analytical field to which we give the name of context. As Valentin Daniel and Jeffrey M. Peck note in their introduction to Culture/Contexture (Reference Daniel and Peck1996), from the many borrowings between literature and anthropology over the past several decades has come the realization that both disciplines are mutually alive to their extrinsic and intrinsic contextures. For them, contexture points in two directions at once: it is the historical, sociological, and political background to the text, but it is also what lies beyond the text that serves to manufacture certain modes of significance inside of it.

The difference between context and contexture is directly pertinent to a decolonialized reading of the literary curriculum. While there are many instances where this can be tried out, I shall focus here on Joseph Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is a historical test case both for discussions of modernism and of postcolonialism, and also in its various afterlives in literature and in film. When I was first introduced to Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s novel in my undergraduate degree at university in Ghana, no mention whatsoever was made of colonialism or indeed of the real violence of the Congo Free State that had deeply informed its context. The interpretation provided us was steadfastly aimed at highlighting modernist devices. We studied Heart of Darkness in a course that also included T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and some stories from Dubliners, among others. Looking back now, I think the course could have been minimally augmented with the modernist poetry of Gabriel Okara and the inimitable Christopher Okigbo. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Chinua Reference AchebeAchebe’s Arrow of God, Yvonne Vera’s Without a Name, Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, and Dambudzo Marechera’s collection of stories in The House of Hunger could also have been thrown in for good measure from within the African literary tradition. But that is not what we were offered as undergraduate students of English at Legon. The focus was on modernism as a set of devices seemingly pertinent specifically to the English canon of the early twentieth century and completely separated from any other cultural context. And the course we took on African literature had all the usual suspects from that tradition but also made no reference to modernist or indeed formalist experimentation of any kind.

Rereading Heart of Darkness in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and specifically in the context of an episode on the novel I prepared for Critic.Reading.Writing, the YouTube channel in which I started to explore the relationship between literature and other vectors of social life, the contexture of the novel suddenly gained extraordinary prominence as an essential part of my decolonized reading of it.2 Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad is famous for having depicted the Congo River and the forest around it as the sites of primal impulses and longings, thus converting them into the locations of various elusive epiphanies. And yet the problem of representation, couched by Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad in terms of the contrast between narrative surfaces and their kernels, also allows Heart of Darkness to partially divest the historical Congo of the horror of its more sordid details and to render it the staging place of a different kind of crisis, namely that of representation itself.

The Congo Free State was given to Leopold II of Belgium (King of Belgium, 1865–1909) after the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, and he run it as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. The Berlin Conference was assembled to decide on the terms of the European colonization and regulation of trade in Africa and is credited by historians to have formally started The Scramble for Africa, with the Congo as its epicenter. The Congo Free State at the time of King Leopold’s ownership was a whopping 905,000 square miles in size. This is roughly the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Greece all put together, or Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado as a single continuous land mass.

Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s Heart of Darkness was first serialized as a three-part story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. The novella draws on material that Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad wrote in his diary on a six-month trip to the Congo in 1890, when he worked as a ship’s captain on a boat on the Congo River. His eyewitness observations of the atrocious methods of Belgian exploitation of the region and its natives were so upsetting that it led nine years later to one of the most famous representations of the violence of colonial extraction in all of world literature.

To understand how Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad converts the scenes of near-apocalyptic devastation to those of supersubtle and elusive modernist narration, however, we must first come to grips with the real historical, geographical, and social context that informed his impressions. Here is where context gives way to contexture, that is to say, to the ways in which the historical period both provides the framing and insinuates itself in the modernist formal structure of elusiveness that Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad used to capture his phenomenological sense (and not just the facts) of the events.

As we have noted already, the then-Congo Free State was privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885 to 1908. King Leopold had managed to procure the Congo Free State by convincing other European states and the USA at the Berlin Conference that he was going to turn the region into a Free Trade zone and rid it of slavery, which at the time was dominated by Arab traders. What happened next was the direct opposite of what he had promised, and the region was subjected to systematic and rapacious plunder, with the most horrific violence being visited upon the people of the Congo in a bid to extract ivory, and after that rubber and other minerals, for sale on the international market. The extraction of the precious primary products was done through the granting of large concessions to various merchants and corporations that divided the country up into different fiefdoms, with the Belgians themselves forming a company with a skeletal bureaucracy that oversaw the entire region. They also set up a much-feared army.

The Congo Free State was the source of incredible wealth that serviced first the luxury tastes of Europeans and Americans through its ivory production, and then also the demands of the growing automobile industry and its dependence on rubber for tyres. As David Van Reybrouck tells us in his book Congo: The Epic History of a People (Reference Van Reybrouck2014):

In Antwerp there were warehouses packed full of tusks. In 1897, 245 metric tons of ivory were exported to Europe, almost half of the world’s production in that year. Antwerp outstripped Liverpool and London as the global distribution center for ivory. Pianos and organs everywhere in the West were outfitted with keys of Congolese ivory; in smoky salons the customers tapped billiard balls or arranged dominoes that were made from raw materials from its equatorial forest. The mantlepieces of middle-class homes sported statuettes made of “elfin wood” from Congo; on Sunday the people went out strolling with walking sticks and umbrellas whose handles had once been [elephant] tusks.


The methods that the Belgians used in the Congo had a devastating effect on all the communities along the Congo River as well as in the hinterland. Girls as young as eleven and twelve were seized by European merchants to act as their concubines, sometimes even being incorporated into large harems for the merchants. This is the source of the image of Kurtz’s “Intended” in Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s novella. More importantly, the extraction of ivory and rubber depended on various acts of wanton brutality upon the natives. Africans were routinely seized and held hostage until their chiefs or families delivered set cargos of ivory and rubber. If the cargo was not satisfactorily delivered, the hands of captives were chopped off as punishment. Sometimes, girls’ hands were also chopped off for refusing to have sex with Belgian men, or simply as a show of unbridled lust and power. Every bullet shot by members of the Force Publique, the Belgian army in the Congo, had to be accounted for by bringing back either a dead body or cut-off limbs. In combination with disease epidemics and the social disruptions brought on by these violent colonial extraction atrocities, the local population was decimated, with an estimated 500,000 Congolese dying in 1901 alone.

The atrocities were finally exposed by the diplomat and Irish nationalist Roger Casement (1864–1916), who was asked by the British government in 1903 to investigate the rumors of atrocities in the Congo. He delivered the Congo Report to the British government in 1904. Casement had already been acting since 1901 as the British consul at Boma, a trade station on the Congo River. To write his Report Casement travelled for weeks interviewing people throughout the region, including overseers, mercenaries, and African workers. The revelations of the sordid reign of terror that had been unleashed on the people of the region led to an international outcry and universal condemnation of King Leopold’s methods from all quarters, which in turn led to the termination of his private ownership of the Congo Free State. Leopold surrendered the region to the Belgian government in 1908, and Belgium ran the Congo until its independence in 1960. Casement and Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad had briefly met in the Congo in 1890, and even though they were united in exposing the atrocities in the region, it is the differences in their depictions of the African natives in their two accounts that is most telling from the point of view of the question of the contexture behind the literary representation (see Reference Armstrong, Conrad and ArmstrongArmstrong xii).

To conduct his investigation, Roger Casement had by necessity spoken to many African natives. Even though he is credited with having spoken some African languages at the time, many of his interviews were conducted through translators. At various points in his report, Casement describes the demeanour and character of his African interlocutors, painting a picture of their fears, anxieties, and their humanity in the face of the Belgian-inflicted apocalypse. It is evident that in Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s own six-month stay in the Congo he too would have had to rely on Africans for a variety of services, including being taken care of when he was down with malarial fever and dysentery toward the end of his stay. In other words, even though unlike Casement, he did not speak any local languages, Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad too must have communicated with African interlocutors of various social statuses through translators, thus gaining some familiarity with them over his six-month stay.3

And so, it is something of a surprise, as Chinua Reference AchebeAchebe notes in his famous critical essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s Heart of Darkness” (Reference Achebe1977), that Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad does not grant his African characters even a modicum of language. Reference AchebeAchebe laments how Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad refuses to grant speech to the Africans in his novella, simply reducing what they say to grunts, jabbering, and other strange and presumably incomprehensible nonlinguistic sounds. Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad also refers to them as “savages” at various points in the work. When compared with the account in Casement’s report, we find that not only is Reference AchebeAchebe correct in his critique of Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad, but that there is also an additional question that needs to be answered regarding the nature of the literary representation of colonial atrocity. Why did Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad decide to pare down the Africans in his novella simply to elemental sounds, when he must have known full well that they not only had language, but also well-constituted forms of communication, which he most likely had himself been a beneficiary of?

However, an accusation of anti-Black racism on the part of the writer on its own does not quite reach the heart of the matter, for Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad also produces an excoriating representation of the Belgians in the Congo, whom he ironically calls “pilgrims” throughout the novella. One way to address the troubling question of Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s obvious racism is to look at the ways in which Heart of Darkness harnesses the problematic question of literary representation to those of allegory rather than of realism. In this regard, we must recognize that the Africans in the novella are assimilated into the register of inscrutability encapsulated in the vital yet elusive backdrop of the Congo River and its forest themselves. The effect of this assimilation of the African human characters into the geographical landscape is to render both landscape and characters as equally incommensurable as representational objects. Collectively, they all thus offer an ever-elusive and recalcitrant problem for modernist literary representation, a problem, as Brian McHale notes in Postmodernist Fiction with respect to modernism in general, of the dominance of epistemological doubt in modernist representation (see Reference McHaleMcHale 3–21) . Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad couches the problem of representation partly in the perceived contradictions between kernel and surface, between manifest and latent dream content, and between narrated form and described events. But for Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad, as we shall see in a moment, the form or reality precedes the literary content, that is to say, it is the very structure of the real world that generates the dreamlike and elusive content that retains the content’s persistent representational difficulty, thus making the two ultimately inseparable as two categories of representation. At one point in his storytelling, Marlow exclaims in exasperation to his listeners on the Nellie the difficulty he faces in conveying the dream-like sensation of what he has been describing to them:

I became in an instant as much of a pretense as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see – you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams. … No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.


Marlow is here making broad generalizations about the difference between dream fabric and dream sensations or between manifest and latent dream content, if we follow a Freudian analogy from The Interpretation of Dreams (Reference Freud1899). But the generalization needs to be questioned, because not all dreams we have are necessarily elusive in the way Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad or indeed Freud describes them. There are many simple dreams we have for which the content and the sensation completely coincide and are easy to convey to a listener. Dreams of the satisfaction of primary bodily functions, for example, may sometimes appear garbled and confusing, but at other times appear exactly as what they point to, namely, as the satisfaction of the urge to eat, or pee, or have sex, or otherwise relieve oneself of some pressing physical need. What Marlow seems to be doing in the novella is actually transferring the sense of unreality about his experiences in the Congo, which he has already been struggling to describe to his listeners, into the description of elusive dreamscapes in general.4 In other words, it is his experiences along the Congo River that create the sensation of elusiveness, for which he then casts about to find a narrative form and a descriptive metaphor. Thus, when he says it is like the difference between the dream and the dream sensation, he is really saying that the experience of the Congo explains the character of what he takes to be the dreamscape, rather than the other way round. Not only has the form of his experiences in the Congo preceded the analogy with the dreamscape, but it has also prefigured the elusive texture of the narrative of the novel itself. Marlow has created an affective leakage between experience and dreamscape in which it is experience that defines dreamscape but for which dreamscape stands as a metaphorical or indeed allegorical exemplar. This is what I mean by the form preceding the content of narration in the novella at all levels, even, as we see here, at the level of analogy. First, the elusive experiences in the Congo elicit a particular form of narration that has specific structural features, such as the novella’s adjectival insistence first noted by Reference LeavisF. R. Leavis (177–80), the reduction of majority of the characters to fleeting walk-on roles or locations in tableaux-like settings and without the attribution of names, and the description of landscape and background as always somehow containing something brooding and filled with indescribable sounds as if to overwhelm all the senses completely. We may argue that Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad uses the metaphor of dreamscape to explain the experiences in the Congo that have always remained incommensurable to him. But because the experiences are so elusive and impossible to pin down, they distort what might be understood as the dreamscape and forces a generalization of the elusiveness of all dreams rather than of some dreams, and thus of the difficulty of conveying dream sensation as a general rule. We might say, then, that for Marlow and for Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad beyond him, the form of experience in the Congo distorts the idea of dreamscape and makes the dreamscape into its own image. Thus, to understand the dreamscape in Heart of Darkness you must first explore the contexture of life in the Congo itself and not vice versa.

As we have already noted, what Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad does in representing the African characters is to assimilate them to the depiction of the Congo River and its forest and to render all of them as somehow the source of primal realities that defy representation as such. They are taken to arouse the most subliminal cognitions of both infinite resemblances and infinite possibilities in the European mind, as if, in the face of such realities, anything can literally happen, including the recreation of the world and of all human relationships within it. This is what Marlow tells us about the journey up Congo on a steamer:

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence.

In literature, epiphanies often involve an intensification of the perspectival sensorium, that is to say, a heightening of all the senses of smell, touch, sight, color, sensation, and other aspects of feeling and perception. But along with these, epiphanies also sometimes involve the intensification of the sense of time, as though time reveals a primary eternal dimension that either obliterates immediate sense perception or ties it to something much larger than the moment of perception itself. This is what we see in this passage of Marlow going up the Congo River. Going back to the beginnings of the world implies not just the beginning of things, but that anything at all is possible. The thing to note, however, is that Marlow seems to be the only one to experience these sensations of epiphany on the Congo River. The other White pilgrims, being completely devoted to extracting ivory and thus making money, do not seem to experience the same perspectival intensifications. This also assigns to Marlow the contradictory location of an inside/outsider, as though he is both part of what he is observing and experiencing and yet somehow also separate from it, as if looking from some transcendental place beyond it.

In putting matters in this way, Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad was breaking ranks fundamentally with the ways in which the world outside of Europe had been represented in the highly popular masculine adventure narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Starting with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), as well as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and the novellas of A. G. Henty, among various others, young European boys and men were depicted in different parts of the Empire doing all manner of things, including conquering the natives and attempting to reveal the ways of God to them. Many of these novels were blockbusters when they were first published, with some running into several editions and selling 100,000 copies each. They were frequently given as presents to young boys. And at the same time, respected scholars such as the priest, historian, and social reformer Charles Kingsley at Cambridge and the famous art critic John Ruskin at Oxford delivered inaugural lectures in 1860 and 1870 respectively in which they extolled the virtues of young British men going out into the Empire to prove themselves. As Reference CarterMiranda Carter puts it in an article in The Guardian, these novels provided:

a vast, exotic, canvas, far from increasingly safe and conventional Britain, on which to recast old familiar plots: quests, struggles with evil, tests of strength, [and] exciting encounters with the unfamiliar. Their protagonists were tested and came through. An energetic plot was vital – it is no accident that many of the most famous have spawned multiple film versions.

The question of the justification for why they would go to such places when they had not been invited was never raised in these masculine adventure narratives at all, for the White men (and these were typically men) asserted an inalienable right to be wherever they happened to be without needing to explain themselves to anyone, including the natives whose wealth they were happy to plunder. Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad’s Heart of Darkness was the first literary work to raise serious doubts about the White man’s place in different parts of the New World and to seriously interrogate the relationship between the civilizing mission and the quest for profit. In his novella, self-assurance is replaced with doubt, and the justness of the European as an actor in other parts of the world is turned to a question of deep existential anguish. But Reference Conrad and ArmstrongConrad did this by also linking the entire question of the White man’s place in the Empire to that of literary representation, thus delivering insights that have continued to exercise generations of readers interested in colonialism and its aftermath. And it is by understanding the complex nature of the contexture in which it was set, and the ways in which this contexture puts pressure on the literary-aesthetic choices of the writer, that we are able to stop reading Heart of Darkness as simply a classic of modernist narration somehow insulated from the effects of the context it was trying to depict.5 And the method relayed here can be extended to other kinds of texts that represent both violent encounters between races, or simply the privileging of one subject position over another.

If I have so far read Heart of Darkness in relation to a contexture that helps to explain the novels literary devices, I will now turn to a different kind of decolonized reading that also invokes context but this time sees in it important intersectional dimensions deriving from the sometimes-implicit discursive positions of equity-seeking groups that can be discerned in a literary text even in their absence.

Intersectionality: The Irruption of Blackness in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

The term intersectionality was first introduced into academic discourse by Reference CrenshawKimberlé Crenshaw from the perspective of legal studies to point out the multiple ways in which women of color are oppressed from different directions in terms of their race and class status, as well as their gender. For Crenshaw, intersectionality is a mode of critique as well as a practice, thus the starting point of critique is to grasp the simultaneity and conjunctural processes of oppression, and, even more importantly, to attempt to devise a collective means for ending that oppression. In terms of praxis and not simply critique the Combahee River Collective, the radical group of Black feminist lesbians in Boston who started working in the 1970s, may be considered to have modeled its main terms. They perceived themselves as dedicated to “struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems are interlocking” (9). In both Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective usages, intersectionality is considered to be only the starting point of a longer process of linking perception to modes of action. It is in this spirit that I deploy the term here.

Despite Baz Luhrmann’s best efforts at introducing Black figures in peripheral roles in his movie of The Great Gatsby (2013), readers of Fitzgerald’s novel itself will know that, in spite of its being set in New York’s Jazz Age, we see only one reference to Black characters. This is as Tom drives with Gatsby’s car into New York from West Egg: “As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry” (Reference Fitzgerald and West69). This single mention, as we can see, is met with a form of derisive or nervous laughter from Nick (but what is so funny about these modish Black folk, one might ask?). The absence of Blacks is most telling in the rumbunctious party scenes at Gatsby’s mansion, to which we are told “People were not invited – they went there” (Reference Fitzgerald and West41). The list of names of partygoers that Nick gives us has no hint of any Black people among them:

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

While some might argue that you cannot necessarily tell simply from a name the race of its bearer, the point is that as a general rule in writings by White writers if a person is not specifically marked for race it can safely be assumed that they are White. And at no point does Nick in any of the descriptions he gives of the many people he meets both at the parties and in different settings (at the impromptu get-together at Myrtle’s apartment; with Meyer Wolfsheim at the social club in New York City) give the faintest indication that any of them is Black. Nor do Tom, Daisy, and Jordan indicate at any point that in either their present lives in East Egg or earlier when they were in Chicago that they consorted with any but White folk.

And so, it comes as something of a surprise (a big one) when in the revelation scene at the Plaza Hotel, Tom goes as far as calling Gatsby the n-word, not directly, but by heavy imputation. To understand how this happens we must first reconstruct the scene and the conversation the main characters have there. This will be done in broad strokes, but the scene is worth attending to slowly. Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Nick rent themselves a large suite on an upstairs floor of the Plaza Hotel on a sudden whim because of the oppressive summer temperature and the fact that they all experience a lot of awkwardness when Nick brings Gatsby to visit Tom and Daisy at their home for the first time. Directly below their hotel suite is a wedding ceremony and, as the scene unfolds, there wafts to them from time-to-time strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as well as sounds of other music and dancing from the celebrants. The spatial arrangement of the scene is significant, because it suggests a contrast between the revelations of marital infidelity that we are soon going to be privy to and the inception of a pristine marital relationship marked by marriage vows and the witnessing of others. It is not entirely accidental that at some point during the scene Tom, Daisy, and Jordan refer back to events when Tom and Daisy got married some five years earlier. They mention someone fainting, the strange case of a chap called Biloxi who made boxes, and Asa Bird. By this, the three friends invoke a social circle from their shared past of which Gatsby is not a part. This insulation of a social fraction is then scaled up and given a hard-edged racial (and not just social) articulation by Tom, shortly after it becomes unambiguously clear to him that Gatsby was having an affair with Daisy. After the unexpected disclosure that Gatsby did indeed go to Oxford, only not as a regular student but for three months as a veteran from the army, Tom is red-faced and clearly seriously upset. His wife tells him to “Please have a little self-control.” To which he blurts out angrily:

“Self-control!” repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out … Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.

As though to underline the utter ridiculousness of what Tom has just said, Jordan murmurs plaintively: “We’re all white here” (Reference Fitzgerald and West130).

The scene and Tom’s outburst is nothing short of extraordinary because he has, even if not in so many words, practically called Gatsby the n-word. But why? When Nick first goes to visit Tom and Daisy early in the novel, Tom is extolling the virtues of The Rise of the Colored Empires, a book by one Goddard. The actual book that Fitzgerald is referring to here is the eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color published in 1920, the subtitle of which was “The Threat Against White World-Supremacy.” But Tom’s mention of Goddard rather than Stoddard as author of the book also helps to invoke the eugenicist Herbert Goddard’s Human Efficiency and Levels of Human Intelligence, also published in 1920, as another part of his mental makeup on the question of race relations. Both these texts predate The Great Gatsby by five years and so were part of the discursive backdrop to the novel. But if his outburst places Gatsby firmly amidst the colored threats to White supremacy, it is not simply because Tom has just had confirmation that Gatsby has been sleeping with his wife, or indeed that he is a crook who has even had something to do with fixing the World Series of 1919, but for another reason altogether, for understanding which we have to turn to the social context of bootlegging during the period of Prohibition. For among other unsavory things, Gatsby and Meyer Wolfsheim, whom we have met earlier in the novel, have made much of their money from bootlegging alcohol. Prohibition, which ran roughly from 1920 to 1933, coincided first with the nativist and anti-immigrant movement in the United States, and then with the Christian temperance movement, which was itself driven by strong anti-immigrant sentiment. This is partly because much of the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol in the period was done by newly arrived immigrants from Europe, specifically Poles, Italians, and Jews. What is more striking with specific reference to Gatsby, however, is that the period from the mid-nineteenth century also saw the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of Jews to settle as farmers on the East Coast and the Midwest. As Michael Reference PekarofskiPekarofski (2012) persuasively argues, Gatsby’s fragmentary description of his background before his fateful meeting with Mr. Dan Cody, the owner of the yacht on which the seventeen-year-old James Gatz was to undergo his metamorphosis into Jay Gatsby, provides strong hints that his parents were unsuccessful Jewish farmers who had settled in the Midwest. The young James Gatz had been born in rural North Dakota and had himself worked along the shores of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and salmon-fisher before his encounter with Cody. That he is likely Jewish is entirely plausible from his deep association with Meyer Wolfsheim and his “gang.” The central point to be noted here, however, is that when Tom Buchanan accuses him of being representative of the darker races that threaten to overrun the White race, he is seeing him as a prime example of a Jewish gambler, bootlegger, and all-round crook. In other words, the comment is both racist and anti-Semitic at one and the same time. But to get to its inherent anti-Semitism you must first interrogate its blatant racism. The question of why Tom practically calls Gatsby the n-word is the starting point for grasping how race is a placeholder for an intersectional form of otherness in the novel, in this case both Black and Jewish, both of which are only latent and not manifest in the narrative. An intersectional reading, in which we bring to bear on our interpretation as many interests and perspectives from different equity-seeking groups can also deliver a form of reading for justice, effectively decolonizing our interpretation by forcing us to complicate any simple monological reading of who or what group is the subject of microaggression or indeed oppression.

“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”: Pedagogy and the Politics of Comparison

One of the key problems with the English literary curriculum in most departments is the way in which the compulsory period papers do not necessarily speak to one another, and much less to the elective components of the curriculum. Some might say that this is because of the steady retreat from the large survey courses that start from Beowulf to say Sandra Cisneros or Nnedi Okorafor. I must admit to a slight sense of regret for the passing of the era of the Great Tradition of English literary studies. Harold Bloom’s ambitious yet ultimately flawed The Western Canon (Reference Bloom1994) when it first came out was no help in this respect, because it was mainly composed of piecemeal attention to various texts that he considered of canonical status, but with no real attempt at reading them contrapuntally, to invoke Edward Said’s highly productive term for comparative reading that he exemplified to great effect in Reference SaidCulture and Imperialism. But both conceptual and methodological problems must be confronted in trying to establish a Great Books literary survey that is both inclusive and treats each text with equal critical attention. How is this to be achieved? I think there are two ways of doing this, the first is via what I describe elsewhere as interleafing, and the second is by following a particular cluster of questions that are incrementally taken up in each installment of the literary survey from beginning to end.

As I note with respect to the principle of interleafing in the final chapter of Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (Reference 279Quayson2021):

The idea of an interleafed reading is best understood in terms of how we read well-known canonical texts from any tradition. Each well-known text you encounter is always read as if for the second time, even if it is your very first time of encountering the text in question. Or your second, or your third, or your fourth reading. Interleafing also means that to take any literary text seriously you have to read it with the subliminal or explicit knowledge of all the various ways in which it is impinged upon by other texts and may in its turn impinge upon others. This should be the preliminary starting point, even if you have no idea how these interrelations might be established. In other words, every text is to be read as a portal to other things of literary value and not simply to confirm already-established cultural experiences and dispositions. In this type of reading, attitude is incipient action, that is to say, to read as if what you are reading is part of a larger set of cross-cultural illuminations is to be open to finding out more about how such cross-cultural illuminations take place.

Thus, an interleafed reading by definition takes seriously everything that has been read before or alongside the text being read. It is this that allows us to read Okonkwo’s decision to walk off and commit suicide at the end of Reference AchebeAchebe’s Things Fall Apart as a gesture similar to Oedipus’ act in taking out his eyes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. They are both acts of defiance against the inscrutability of what they consider their destinies. They are acts that humanize them and that assert a form of agency despite the their clear futility.6 Or that the description that Gatsby gives Nick Carraway of the first time he kisses Daisy in The Great Gatsby is evocative of a form of epiphanic elementalism that puts it in the same frame of the perceived transcendence of time that we just saw in Heart of Darkness but that we also see more than once in Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North, and in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, among various others.

Which brings us to the second proposition for establishing transhistorical comparative frames for our teaching that help to elevate individual texts from their simple fixity within their respective periods. It seems to me worthwhile to think always in our teaching of clusters of ideas, concepts, and themes that might help to animate texts comparatively. The key question of course is whether the transhistorical is another name for thematized course offerings. The rationale behind many period courses, such as the Oxford Final Honour School 1760–1830 paper, is that students need to learn a wide range of literary forms, from polemics to novels to Romantic poetry, and not just the salvageable bits, of this period. What I am suggesting here is that the idea of “coverage” be thought of more creatively, and even while introducing students to a wide range of forms, it might still be possible to model the diversity of forms within the framework of transhistorical comparison.7

I have already mentioned two of them above, but it is entirely possible to find others that are both capacious and generative. Take for example the concept of doubt. How do we adopt doubt as a concept to animate different texts, genres, and features of the literary curriculum? While we can start from as far back as the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a good place to begin for those without much patience or expertise with the longue durée of English literary history. And yet even in Shakespeare, Hamlet is not the only one subject to doubt: we have the examples of Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, King Lear, and Macbeth to draw on. Each of these would deliver a different configuration of the problem of doubt. Once the terms of doubt are established, there are any number of texts that can be considered pertinent to the general question, including sacred texts such as the Bible, the Quran, the poetry of the Sufi mystics, and on to Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, Wole Soyinka, J. M. Coetzee, and many others that readily spring to mind. Or, to take another broad and productive example, suffering. Where do we not see suffering in English literature, and why is it that we are not able to compare representations of suffering in different literary and cultural traditions? But what I am saying here has implications not just for the design of large survey courses, but also for the internal orchestration of echoes and resonances within individual courses. While it should be impossible to teach a survey course on the history of poetry at an American university without paying serious attention to the Harlem Renaissance or Native American poetry (amazingly, this has been known to happen!), it should also be impossible to teach any course without getting your students to realize explicit and implicit connections to the rest of the broad literary tradition. And thus, in my own classes on African literature, I resolutely refute any imputation, real or imagined, that my students are being inducted into a cultural enclave, namely, that this is a course strictly on African literature and nothing else. Rather, my students are required to attend systematically to all manner of other texts in the broader literary tradition. The point for me is to get my students to see the entailments of African literature in the rest of their literary training. This is also important for decolonizing the curriculum.

It is also important to acknowledge the essential difference between what I have described here so far as decolonizing the curriculum, and how Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh interpret the concept of the decolonial more specifically.8 For Mignolo, the decolonial requires the complete jettisoning of Western models of thought and their replacement with Indigenous modes from Latin America, Africa, and India, among others. The problem with this idea for the English literary curriculum is that writers practice a form of interleafing in the way that I described it a moment ago, so that it would be practically impossible to completely parenthesize, say, Sophocles from our reading of Reference AchebeAchebe (or vice versa), or Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner from our interpretations of Toni Morrison’s novel. In the second instance, this is simply because we cannot discount the fact that Morrison wrote her MA thesis on the earlier writers. By the same token, it would be irresponsible to refer the meanings of Reference AchebeAchebe and Morrison’s writings exclusively to the Euro-American tradition without paying attention to the Igbo and African American traditions that inescapably infuse their works. The point, contra Mignolo, is to read contrapuntally or dialectically, paying as much attention to what originality these and other postcolonial or minority writers bring to bear on their work from their own traditions, but not discounting the inspiration that they also draw from the Euro-American one that is a central part of their education and literary aesthetics.

Conclusion: Articulating Principles
  1. 1. A preliminary approach to reading for justice is to focus on the manner of the text’s representation of historical events, what I refer to as its contexture. Here, while we may be treading on slippery ground, what we are interested in are the representational choices that are made because of the background, the ways in which historical context might be seen as impinging determinedly upon the text. Another dimension to doing this is to see all historical (and cultural) details as thresholds rather than particularities, and thus as the means by which the relevant text deploys such details as fulcrums connecting other dimensions of the text. The manner in which we are able to do this would lend complexity to what might risk becoming the mere attempt at synchronizing literature with historical events, or as reading literature as the simple and unmediated mimesis of historical reality.

  2. 2. The second vector of reading for justice is in the broad shape of a holistic understanding of the curriculum and its constituent parts as in dialogue with one another. As I hope to have shown, reading for justice and indeed decolonizing the curriculum requires a broad grasp of all the literary curriculum simultaneously and as a matter of principle, even if it is manifest as individual instantiations in the first instance. The student, and indeed their instructors, must see the entire curriculum as interconnected and not just a collection of disparate parts. This may require a radical change in the way we undertake training in the profession, because the enclave mentality enjoined by strict specialisms actually undermines the prospect of decolonizing.

  3. 3. Related to the previous point, one of the important critical procedures in reading for justice is that to do it properly requires forms of intersectionality, and of reading from the perspectives of different equity-seeking groups simultaneously. Some of such intersectional readings have already been adroitly done by feminist, postcolonial, and critical race scholars. Two great recent examples of such intersectional reading are to be found in Ian Smith’s Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race (Reference Smith2022), and in Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Reference Heng2018). Neither of these is likely to escape controversy in their respective fields, but the point is that the intersectional readings that they deploy require us to see things from multiple equity-seeking perspectives at once. In the case of Smith’s book, it is that of critical race theory and Shakespeare, while Heng’s gives us situated intersectional readings of race, gender, and the vagaries of anti-Semitism in the period in question all at the same time.

Ultimately, however, we must convey to our students in the classroom the absolute passion of what we do, for it is the passion that may ignite their interest in encountering and reencountering the texts that we introduce them to, and, hopefully, to an understanding that literature is also a tool for dismantling befuddled forms of thinking. But first, you have to read it properly.


Chapter 7 Theories of Anthologizing and Decolonization

Chapter 8 Confabulation as Decolonial Pedagogy in Singapore Literature

Chapter 9 Marxism, Postcolonialism, and the Decolonization of Literary Studies

Chapter 10 Against Ethnography On Teaching Minority Literature

Chapter 11 Orality, Experiential Learning, and Decolonizing African Literature

Chapter 12 Vernacular English in the Classroom A New Geopolitics of the English Language

Chapter 13 Reading for Justice On the Pleasures and Pitfalls of a Decolonizing Pedagogy


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Figure 0

Figure 11.1 Portraits of dead White men, Jane Austen, and Queen Elizabeth I at the Department of English, University of Ghana.

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Figure 1

Figure 11.2 Portraits of Ama Ata Aidoo and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at the Department of English, University of Ghana.

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Figure 2

Figure 11.3 Screenshots of Instagram Live sessions with Reggie Rockstone, Kojo Cue, and Poetra Asantewa, respectively, in 2020.

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Figure 3

Figure 11.4 Respective class visits by the Ghanaian musicians Worlasi and Jupitar in 2022.

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Figure 4

Figure 11.5 Guest appearance from the Pidgin-English writer Fui Can-Tamakloe in 2020.

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